To Bill Keller (c/o The New York Times)

NYTimesTowerDear Mr. Bill Keller:

Each semester, in the very first class session at the Washington Journalism Center, I have my students read the New York Times self-study document from 2005 entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust (.pdf).” Then I require them to carefully read your response, “Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf).”

The passage that always hits home for me, as a professor who works with young journalists from a wide variety of Christian campuses, is this one:

First and foremost we hire the best reporters, editors, photographers and artists in the business. But we will make an extra effort to focus on diversity of religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.

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.

My students find this commitment encouraging, coming from the leader of the most powerful newsroom in America. It helps them understand that if they achieve journalistic excellence, they can help provide intellectual and cultural diversity in a news industry that seriously needs to convince readers — on the left and right — that it is committed to accuracy, fairness and balance.

This commitment is especially important if, during the current crisis in American journalism, the Times seeks to find more readers by reaching a broader, more diverse, national audience — even in, dare I say, pews in the American heartland.

It is in that spirit that I want to point you toward a recent story in your newspaper that, frankly, doesn’t even grasp the role that religion plays in the lives of many people in the state of New York and, perhaps, in some shadowy corners of New York City. The story focuses on that 38-to-24 vote in the New York State Senate rejecting a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

The defeat shocked supporters, of course, because many legislators clearly were afraid to confess beforehand that they supported a traditional definition of marriage. What was going on? What happened during the debate? We are told this:

The state’s Roman Catholic bishops had consistently lobbied for its defeat, however, and after the vote released a statement applauding the move.

“Advocates for same-sex marriage have attempted to portray their cause as inevitable,” Richard E. Barnes, the executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said in the statement. “However, it has become clear that Americans continue to understand marriage the way it has always been understood, and New York is not different in that regard. This is a victory for the basic building block of our society.”

Several supporters said they felt they had been betrayed by senators who promised to vote yes but then, reluctant to support an issue as politically freighted as same-sex marriage if they could avoid it, switched their votes on the floor when it became evident the bill would lose.

When I read this report, I thought to myself: I wonder if the religious issues that surround this issue surfaced in any meaningful way during the debate in the legislature? It’s obvious that Catholic Church would have been involved, behind the scenes. But what about other groups?

As it turns out, 17 senators rose to speak in favor of the legislation — with only one speaking against it. That’s an amazing ratio.

custom_1245221323585_Bill_KellerThen again, that one rebel voice turned out to represent the winning side. It was a Democrat from the Bronx, a Pentecostal minister named Ruben Diaz Sr. He was the subject of a recent Times mini-profile, so I know that his viewpoints are well known to some of your editors.

As it turns out, a Baptist Press report on the debate in the New York Senate contained some interesting material about the debate. I realize that this is a conservative news service for a niche market. However, it certainly appears that religion played a major role in the debate.

Does anyone in your newsroom get Baptist Press? Just asking. It’s free, so it wouldn’t stretch the budget in these tight times. Here’s a piece of that report:

A Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, Diaz has been the most vocal opponent from the start. When he learned … the vote was set to take place, he went to his office to pray. …

Diaz, the second speaker during the debate, set the tone early for the discussion about religion. “Gay marriage,” he said, “is not only opposed by us evangelicals.

“All the major religions in the world also oppose it,” Diaz, who grew up in Puerto Rico, said. “The Jewish religion opposes it. The Muslim religion opposes it. The Catholic religion opposes it.”

No one else, though, defended a traditional view of the Bible. Senate President Malcolm Smith said “the Bible does not say same-sex marriage is wrong.” Sen. Velmanette Montgomery told her colleagues that because her faith tradition believes that living together before marriage is sin, the chamber should legalize relationships for homosexuals because “we do not want them to live in sin.” Sen. Eric Adams said religion was important to him but that “when I enter these [Senate] doors, my Bible stays out.” Smith, Montgomery and Adams are all Democrats.

Diaz got in the last word on religion, telling Adams, “The Bible should never be left out. You should carry your Bible all the time.”

That sounds like a rather tense and important exchange, especially since it appears that Diaz had more support in the chamber than anyone expected. What role did religion, ethnicity and culture play in some of those votes?

Here’s my point: I know that it’s important for journalists to wrestle with realities far from from their own neighborhood. However, in this case, may I suggest that the Times try exploring some corners of its own city?

You see, there are Pentecostal Democrats from Puerto Rico who live in the Bronx. There are booming evangelical and charismatic churches in Brooklyn. The Korean Presbyterians are interesting people, too. There are Latino and African-American Catholics, as well. I suggest visiting a Haitian parish.

I could go on. My point is that I think the Times must continue to wrestle with the cultural and intellectual diversity in its city, its state and, yes, its nation, if it is going to reach a broad, strong, growing audience. You will find that there are new readers out there and faith plays a major role in their lives, even if the ancient details of this faith clash with the editorial policies of your newspaper.

I read your newspaper and sincerely wish you well. I urge you to read your own words again and then carry on. To understand how the world really works, journalists must try to understand the often messy details of religion. Please keep trying. Don’t settle for producing journalism catering to the views of readers who share — as you said — your own “predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation.”

Amen.

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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.

  • David Adrian

    “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” Matthew 7:6

  • http://ilovedogma.blogspot.com David Charkowsky

    “To understand how the world really works, journalists must try to understand the often messy details of religion.”

    *bows*

  • Caleb

    I feel like I’m rather unworthy to even comment, but echoing the refrain of David, yes. This encapsulates what the entire purpose of this blog should be.

  • Jay

    Tmatt,

    “it’s nation”???

    C’mon! You should be teaching your would-be journalists not to make such mistakes.

  • Martha

    “Several supporters said they felt they had been betrayed by senators who promised to vote yes but then, reluctant to support an issue as politically freighted as same-sex marriage if they could avoid it, switched their votes on the floor when it became evident the bill would lose.”

    Pardon my cyncism, but ZOMG!!! Politicians behaving like, well, politicians? Who would have expected that? Of *course* they told lobbying groups “You have my sympathy and support and I’ll do all I can for you”! That’s what public representatives *do*! If a sufficient number of actual and potential constituents turned up at Representative Smith’s constituency office asking for February 29th to be declared National Friendship With Zeta Reticuli Day, no way is he going to give them a flat “no” – if he calculates that these fruitcakes actually have enough votes to tip the balance in the upcoming local elections.

    Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched, and always remember that a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s signed on :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JAY:

    GetReligion has no copy editor. We write and we write fast.

    Typos happen. I am happy to correct them.

    I think the writing standards here are pretty high, by blogosphere standards.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    David Adrian:

    And your point, please?

  • Roberto

    At the risk of being a broken record, I want to reiterate what I’ve told you, TMatt, elsewhere: the Times‘ problem isn’t only religion — it’s also class and (dare I say it?)race. It’s written by and for a tiny and completely unrepresentative slice of the population of New York. People like Diaz do not figure in their mental map. The Bronx is terra incognita and the Latino Pentecostals (and their African-American counterparts in the other outer boroughs) are as much a stranger to the Times as the Uighurs — probably more so.

    A brown or black guy quoting scripture might as well be an Andorian as far as the Times is concerned: they don’t know what to make of this being. If he were white and speaking with a southern accent, they have a heuristic to handle his objections but the heuristic isn’t helpful when it comes to guy from Castle Hill with a Spanish accent whose signature issues are hunger and poverty, issues the Times‘ ignores in its putative backyard.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    RR:

    I would have to agree.

    Along with that, the Pew Forum on the People and the Press would argue that CLASS has become one of the industry’s biggest problems, especially at elite levels.

    I’ll try to find the tmatt.net clip that quotes the numbers.

  • S. Newark

    Tell us; how your class has reacted to the ‘fictious’ entreties of the Times?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    S. Newark:

    That’s a straw man comment.

    The Times is a mix of content. There is a great mass of excellent, classic American journalism and then there are also these moments of advocacy journalism that are like Rolling Stone in an academic suit and tie.

    I hope that this post takes the editor’s claims seriously, his desire to be a national newspaper for a wider variety of readers. He had better be sincere about that or the Times will simply settle back into being a niche/liberal newspaper and American journalism will be the poorer for that.

  • dalea

    It followed more than a year of lobbying by gay rights organizations, who steered close to $1 million into New York legislative races to boost support for the measure.

    ***

    That was in part because gay rights groups, which have become major financial players in state politics, wanted to know which senators they should back in the future and which ones to target for defeat.

    Is there a doctrinal term for those who take money and promise to deliver something and then don’t? …

  • Patrick

    I assume you knew that the NYT did a profile of Diaz less than a month ago, where he was given an entire profile devoted to his political career and religious musings on gay rights? And that Diaz’s rhetoric is nothing new to reporters who cover Albany–as opposed to those who just parachute in to cover gay marriage–and therefore his speech was actually nothing new?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/10/nyregion/10marriage.html

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Patrick,

    tmatt linked to that profile in his post. And when did something being “nothing new” prevent it from being “news”? NPR devoted several minutes last night to Sen. Jim Bunning’s denunciation of Ben Bernanke, something that Bunning does every fifteen minutes or so. (I exaggerate.) My point is that politicians (like most public figures) repeat themselves endlessly, out of necessity and consistency. If the standard for political reporting was, “Has this politician ever said this before?”, then there would be very few political stories indeed.

  • Patrick

    I skipped over that link, sorry. The “letter” was so long, I must have missed it.

    But back to your point about Diaz and Bunning. Just because NPR does it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good journalism. Diaz’s anti-gay speeches on the floor of the NY Senate are infamous. They are, arguably, non-news. The November profile pointed that out. He’s a legend in Albany, their own Robert Byrd or Jerry Falwell. So the fact he invokes his faith to oppose gay rights–again–is as newsworthy as Pat Robertson giving another speech about gays.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Patrick wrote:

    So the fact he invokes his faith to oppose gay rights—again—is as newsworthy as Pat Robertson giving another speech about gays.

    Or Al Gore giving another speech about the climate?

    I stand by my point: just because something is “not new” does not mean it’s “not news.” Diaz was the ONLY politician to speak publicly against gay marriage, yet his position carried the day. Seems pretty newsworthy to me. But we can have different opinions on that.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Maybe the Times problem is more all-encompassing than a religion or class problem. Maybe it is that the Times is a hide-encrusted liberal dinosaur which refuses to adapt to the fact it has competition from Fox and talk radio which broadcast news the liberal Times deems not fit to print.
    They have already apologized for leaving their readers mostly in the dark about the Communist in the Obama White House and all the scandals involving Acorn. Now they are not covering themselves in glory in the climategate scandal. The last I saw they wouldn’t print the incriminating e-mails of the left-wing–mankind is boiling the planet–scientists that reveal their gestapo and lieing tactics in the global warming debate. Why? Because the e-mails may have been gotten illegally. Now, isn’t this the same media outlet that specializes in printing stolen government documents (as in the Pentagon Papers)????
    Some of the Times” readers must again be baffled if they hear the news that some people in Hollywood are now demanding Gore’s Oscar be taken back.
    Meanwhile internet news sites around the world don’t seem the least bit inclined to put the climategate story under the same censorship tent that the American MSM seems to have put this issue under. (And if even half the facts about the rotten tactics and hidden and sometimes mysteriously missing data by the man made global-warming promoting scientists are true, our MSM is refusing to cover what could be one of the biggest science scandals in modern history.)

  • David Adrian

    Re tmatt’s comment No. 7: Don’t waste your good words on Mr. Keller. IMHO, he and the Times are no longer worthy of respect. I say that as former newspaperman as well as a Christian.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Well David, we are in total disagreement there.

    I have a great deal of respect for many or even most of the journalists that work at the Times. Goodstein and Kirkpatrick, in particular, as you can tell by searching GetReligion for their names.

    It’s the exceptions to the high quality, the pieces that read like advocacy essays, that make reading the Times so frustrating on some days.

    This is a pro-journalism blog. We praise and we criticize.

    Saying there is nothing to praise in Keller’s document — please read it — is simply not realistic or fair.

  • David Adrian

    Sorry but yes, tmatt, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I wish I had time to respond in detail but I don’t. Suffice it to say that I posted my original comment in a moment of passion which I now regret because I don’t have the time. But I did so because I do care about journalism, a concern that dates to the time I was editor of my junior high school newspaper in the 1950s and began reading the Times. I knocked out my first professional newspaper copy on an old Underwood manual typewriter, probably while you were still the proverbial gleam in your father’s eye. These days, I suspect poor old Abe Rosenthal (God rest his soul!), my favorite Times editor, is spinning in his grave.

  • http://sherrymims.com/blog SMims

    Tmatt, I’m not the original poster, but I wanted to agree with you that the writing quality here is high. It’s part of the reason I read GetReligion, er, religiously. However, if you would like a copy editor, I’m available!

  • David Adrian

    PS to my comment No. 19: Rupert Murdoch (yes, that Rupert Murdoch), has an excellent piece on the state of journalism in my favorite newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, today (“Journalism and Freedom” at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704107104574570191223415268.html). In it, he observes, correctly in IMHO, that “A news organization’s most important asset is the trust it has with its readers, a bond that reflects the readers’ confidence that editors are looking out for their needs and interests.” The reason that that the “lamestream media” as a whole, not just the New York Times, are losing readers, listeners and viewers is that they’ve lost their trust.

  • http://sherrymims.com/blog SMims

    P.S. I feel I should add–since it’s not quite clear on my Web site and I’m getting some blog hits from here–that I have experience in both writing about religion and serving as editor of the religion section in my previous job at a daily newspaper. I really miss that aspect of my former job (hence the offer). You have my e-mail if you’re interested. If not, keep up the great work.


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