News and Beliefs at the Times

NYT Building2In July of 1997, the U.S. State Department, after months of pressure from human-rights activists, released its first global report on the persecution of religious minorities. The report was six months overdue and, thus, had not been released during a tense campaign by the Clinton White House to obtain Most Favored Nation trade status for China.

A press aide stressed that it was Congress that demanded that this document include an emphasis on the persecution of Christians.

The report received minimal press coverage.

The following November, about 8 million Americans in Catholic and Protestant congregations took part in a day of prayer on behalf of the persecuted church, an effort linked to a rising tide of activism on human-rights issues in a wide variety of churches.

This event received even less mainstream coverage than the state department report, despite the fact that it was timed to justify major news coverage. The day of prayer fell shortly after a controversial visit to the U.S. by the president of Chinese. It fell on the same weekend as Beijing’s release of a famous political activist.

While writing Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic, I asked an important American journalist — long a defender of old-fashioned liberal values on human rights — what he thought of this silence in the mainstream press. The late A.M. Rosenthal, by then retired as editor of the New York Times, was not amused.

“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he said. “So why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”

But there was more to this problem than politics, stressed Rosenthal. The basic problem was journalistic in nature. Far too many mainstream reporters and editors, he said, do not want to admit that religion continues to be a powerful force that helps shape events — big and small — in America and around the world.

Yes, I asked Rosenthal if many journalists simply don’t “get religion.”

“Precisely,” he replied.

I offer this Rosenthal flashback in order to add a bit of context to the final “Beliefs” column by Peter Steinfels, which just ran in the New York Times. Several GetReligion readers sent in notes about this piece, including a tip of the hat to Steinfels by Richard Ostling, the veteran religion-beat scribe at Time and the Associated Press.

This fascinating farewell is must reading by anyone who cares about the history and the future of religion writing in the mainstream press.

Steinfels began writing “Beliefs” in 1990, when he was the paper’s senior religion correspondent, and he continued to write it fortnightly after he left the staff in 1997. The “Beliefs” column began when he wrote a memo to his superiors noting that the newspaper was focusing almost all of its religion coverage on the interests of “general” readers, be they secular or religious or somewhere in between.

Nowhere in the paper was there a regular treatment of religion for readers with a special interest in the topic, as there was, obviously, for business and sports, but also for science, art, architecture and many other subjects.

Beliefs would be a column that no more had to insert a phrase identifying the Apostles’ Creed, Gnosticism or Ramadan in a sentence than art or music critics had to insert capsule definitions of Romanticism or Expressionism.

Things did not quite work out that way. Because Beliefs appeared in the regular news section, there was a natural pressure to attract as many general readers as possible. It was painful, for instance, when an editor insisted that a July 6, 1991, reference to the Apostles’ Creed should add “the ancient affirmation of basic Christian doctrines”; and yet a subsequent informal polling of a couple of dozen Times readers (especially ones under 35) suggested that the editor was right.

Question-Mark-on-Stained-GlassSteinfels includes a number of other interesting insights into the challenges he faced writing about religion — especially traditional forms of religion — in the Times during an era shaped by cultural warfare over topics such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage and many other tensions between state and church, mosque, synagogue, etc.

It is also crucial to note, he said, that doing fair, balanced Times coverage of these clashes between traditional believers and the “leading voices of political and cultural liberalism” was complicated by the fact that these liberal voices “included the editorial columns of this paper” and those voices “were heard on some of its other pages as well.”

Please give this “Beliefs” finale a close reading. Steinfels deserves the attention and applause he will receive for his work.

Yet, you may also want to think through the implications of what Rosenthal said about religion and the news, as well as these new observations from Steinfels.

Rosenthal believed that many reporters and editors, at the Times and elsewhere, simply could not understand why religion was so important. It was hard for them to do serious coverage of religion stories that they could not see and, often, did not want to see.

Meanwhile, Steinfels is convinced that his editors believed — accurately, it appears — that is was their readers who could not understand even the most basic facts about religion, in contrast with their grasp of “insider” language about the arts, business, sports, etc. Most New York Times readers would not understand a clear reference to the Apostles’ Creed? Really?

Stop and think about that. What if both of these men are speaking the truth?

Let’s see: “All the news that’s fit to print”?


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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.

  • Michael Pettinger

    Rosenthal believed that many reporters and editors, at the Times and elsewhere, simply could not understand why religion was so important. It was hard for them to do serious coverage of religion stories that they could not see and, often, did not want to see.

    Meanwhile, Steinfels is convinced that his editors believed — accurately, it appears — that is was their readers who could not understand even the most basic facts about religion, in contrast with their grasp of “insider” language about the arts, business, sports, etc. Most New York Times readers would not understand a clear reference to the Apostles’ Creed? Really?

    One thing this suggests is that readers of the New York Times are no more informed about religion than the population at large (or maybe the Times is aiming at a broader,”less educated” audience?). In any event, this post reminded me of Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy,a book that might be familiar to other GR readers. Prothero documents what I would call the lack of “substance” in many Americans’ notions of religion. The most disturbing thing he says is that this sort of ignorance extends to the believers themselves. The dust jacket states, for example, that “two thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.” (Among other tidbits — many Americans believe that the Bible teaches us that “God helps those who help themselves” and Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.)

    Prothero’s book focuses on the role of schools in dealing with “religious illiteracy,” but do the media have a responsibility to educate as well? Providing explanatory glosses for references to the Apostles’ Creed might just be part of such an educative practice. Here’s a trickier question — is it legitimate for a reporter to point out factual errors in a source’s statements about religion?

  • Passing By

    It’s tempting to note that the type of people who know the Apostle’s Creed gave up on the Times long ago. While such snark might be justified, it’s worth noting the degree to which religion has fallen out of popular culture overall (and yes, journalism is, often as not, a function of pop culture).

    How many television shows – comedy or drama – feature families that go to worship services? There are the occasional bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and maybe even a baptism or two, but the religious entity is hardly more than a stage prop. What used to be called “fornication” is a staple of entertainment shows, assumed to be a normal and harmless fact of life. Of course, “hook-ups” are a normal fact of life in some circles, and we are starting to see they are anything but harmless. But don’t tell that to the television writers.

    I’m touching on two factors here: the connection of journalism to entertainment and the narrow view of life informing both. That view of life simply excludes religion as a serious matter, ignoring, characturing, or, occasional slandering it’s practitioners. And, of course, there is the “question authority” meme still leftover from the 60s and 70s.

    All of which is to say that for the Times to ignore religion and religious people is completely predictable.

  • Jerry

    The choice of topics and the way they were framed inevitably revealed a personal perspective

    This thought is really telling. For some time now I’ve played a guessing game when I saw a blog posting here. My first guess was who wrote the piece and the second is to guess what the content will be. As time goes on, I’ve gotten much better at this game.

    I guess some of us commenting on your posts are applying the journalistic variant of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? at least some of the time.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I suspect that the Times readership is made up of a high percentage of people who are religiously illiterate or disdain religion. One need only look at the various national polls that show the American public much more religiously inclined than the typical NY Times reader–as seemingly indicated by the Times own informal poll of their readers Why? Well I rarely see Black or Hispanic Americans reading the Grey Old Lady–and they are among the most religously inclined groups in the New York Times prime distribution area and nationally. In addition, I think most religiously inclined people in other groups long ago gave up on the Times.(Including myself and most others I know who used to be regular Times readers).
    One of the things that seems to most tie the mainstream media together so that to many it seems like a giant news xerox machine is that it seems (based on many off-hand comments they have made) that every reporter, editor, columnist, and talking head wouldn’t think of NOT reading the Times regularly. That can’t but help create a talking parrot effect across the media landscape

  • Harris

    In defense of the Times — one of the religion haunted, ghost stories, was that from last Sunday, Hard Choice for a Comfortable Death: Sedation. Faith made an appearance in that of Jewish chaplain’s questioning — an interesting article, and one of the reasons why the Old Grey Lady still attracts her readers.

  • don

    Old media is dying. If media outlets are not fair and balanced, they will not last or they will only attract a lunatic fringe. These are positive times for news. It can only get better as new sources continue to come on-line.


  • MattK

    Hmmm. It seems the NYT has slipped down another notch. Now, not only will I rank it below the Wall Street Journal, the Post, and the Observer, but I’ll read it even after flipping through the pages of the Village Voice, which is to say, never.

  • Peter

    If editors change stories to explain religion better to an audience that doesn’t have a thorough understanding of liturgy and creeds, isn’t that good journalism? If the readership of the NYT doesn’t understand religion as well as it understands art, is that the NYT’s failure?

  • Julia

    . . an “unbalanced woman” jumped the barriers in St. Peter’s Basilica and knocked him down as he walked down the main aisle to begin Christmas Eve Mass on Thursday.

    This is from the NYT coverage of the incident on Christmas Eve.

    On TV, while the cell phone clip is repeatedly still running on news shows, the event is invariably described as occuring “during Mass.”

    The NYT still gets the technical details right.

  • trierr

    I don’t think its just non-christians who might need historic Christian doctrine explained to them. Terry, as an old Southern Baptist, how many Baptists do you think know what the Apostle’s Creed is? The truth is, many (most?) conservative American protestants are woefully ignorant of the historical details of their own faith. So, yes, it makes complete sense to explain things like the Apostle’s Creed in a paper like the NYT. Why this would make an interesting article (or perhaps a research paper).

  • Bob Smietana

    Not along after arriving in Nashville, I had a copy editor who belonged to an a capella Church of Christ call and asked me, “What’s this Apostle’s Creed you mentioned in the story.

  • MDSF

    The concluding Beliefs just confirms what those of us who consume content already suspect: reporters don’t (primarily) report facts, or truth, or whatever. They fit convenient facts into established narratives.

    The press doesn’t “get religion” because the press by and large is involved in another established narrative about the triumph of reason over circumstance, or some such, and may occasionally have religious overtones, but isn’t actually religious. That’s why religious “ghosts” are left out of stories: they don’t fit the bigger narrative at all.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Excellent comment (#12).