Frustration, from time to Time

Week after week, your GetReligionistas receive mail from people who genuinely distrust or dislike America’s mainstream media.

There is no way to group all of these people into one simplistic camp. Some of them make a lot of sense and some do not.

Some of them, after all, are simply reacting to the fact that the press struggles to cover religion stories, period, and seems to have special problems doing accurate and balanced coverage of hot-button social issues, from abortion to the ordination of women, from gay rights to free speech in an increasingly complex and divided culture.

Many of these writers believe that most journalists are, to be perfectly blunt about it, “liberals” — whatever that word means. Now, it is true that studies keep showing that elite journalists, especially in the powerful corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston, tend to be moral libertarians when it comes to most social issues, taking stands in favor of a kind of radical individualism that is hostile to most traditional forms of religious faith.

Once again, the best writing ever done about one of these issues was the Los Angeles Times series about bias issues in abortion coverage, written by the late David Shaw (who, by the way, was an articulate supporter of abortion rights when describing his own convictions). In part one, Shaw offered this blunt, simple, devastating summary:

Responsible journalists do try to be fair, and many charges of bias in abortion coverage are not valid. But careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play:

* The news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.

* Abortion-rights advocates are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.

* Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention by the media.

* Many news organizations have given more prominent play to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion-rights advocates than to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion rights opponents.

* Columns of commentary favoring abortion rights outnumber those opposing abortion by a margin of more than 2 to 1 on the op-ed pages of most of the nation’s major daily newspapers.

* Newspaper editorial writers and columnists alike, long sensitive to violations of First Amendment rights and other civil liberties in cases involving minority and anti-war protests, have largely ignored these questions when Operation Rescue and other abortion opponents have raised them.

That was published in the mainstream press.

The key, for Shaw, is that this bias is real, but it is not universal. Thus, the goal is to describe these bias issues — yes — as fairly and accurately as possible.

You see, it is simply simplistic to say that the mainstream press is always “liberal.” It’s simplistic to say that the New York Times is always biased, as opposed to offering coverage that is fair and accurate in handling the beliefs involved in debates about religious and cultural disputes in America and around the world. And right now, although it is tempting to say so, it would be simplistic to say that editors at Time have made some kind of conscious decision — similar to the one made by the fallen editorial team at nonNewsweek — to ditch the American model of the press and turn their magazine into an advocacy publication for the moral and cultural left.

I know it feels that way, when you read something like the recent feature on the ordination of women to the priesthood by schismatic groups that are fighting the Catholic Church hierarchy. This piece is still being pushed out front at

But that’s only part of this complex picture.

On the other side, there is “The Price of Free Speech,” a solid news feature by Sean Gregory in the current issue about the U.S. Supreme Court and the rights and wrongs of the anti-gay, anti-America protesters from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

This piece is long, it’s complex, it’s careful, it’s sensitive to viewpoints on both sides. It’s serious. In the end, it’s agonizing, just like the case it describes. Here’s the opening (the only part of the story you can read online, at the moment):

This is Matt’s day, Albert Snyder kept telling himself that March morning in 2006, hours before he laid his only son to rest. This is about Matt. Concentrate on Matt. Ignore them.

Them were the seven protesters he had been warned about who were planning to picket his son’s funeral. They had never met Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. They didn’t know much about him except that he had been killed in Iraq the week before. And yet they had flown more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) to brandish signs saying things like “You’re going to hell,” “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9/11.”

If you have access to a copy of Time, please check this out. The full text will go online in a few weeks, under the magazine’s current approach to its new material.

As you read it, please experience the frustration of knowing that this fine piece of American journalism was published in the same magazine that published that complete skewed, unbalanced, advocacy piece on the female priests. Read both pieces. So, which is the real Time? Try to describe this magazine’s current approach to journalism.

Good luck. Frustrating, isn’t it?

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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.

  • Martha

    It’s not even that the piece was peddling the line of the schismatic movement that these women were indeed priests in the Roman Catholic church, it was just that it was so badly written.

    Serving Communion, saying reconciliation, the deaconate – all petty mistakes that should have been cleaned up before the piece saw print (or pixels).

    If a reporter described elections or sports or economics with such errors, such a story would surely never see print. But it’s probably a sign of the pressure on religion reporting that non-specialists are turned loose on these stories, with the attitude that “anyone can cover them.” The satirical English magazine “Private Eye” has a humorous column by one Sally Jockstrap, ostensibly a sports reporter, who blithely describes such things as “Let’s all cheer on Tim Henman as he enters the America’s Cup with his wonderful steed Red Rum!” but that’s pretty much the level of reporting in Ms. Reiss’ article.

  • Jeffrey

    So, which is the real Time?

    They are both the real Time. A place where the is excellent journalism and sometimes not-so-excellent journalism. Are the publications you actually consider excellent all the time that live up to your standards all the time?

    Time’s approach to journalism is not to be the Associated Press or the Weekly Standard or The Nation. Which means that it is sometimes a publication that is center-left on social issues, center-right on business issues but isn’t trying to be the AP, or the Weekly Standard or the Nation. It is providing narrative and explanatory journalism, which means that it is going to have a voice and character and, yes, sometimes a point of view.

  • tmatt


    You missed the point.

    Of course quality varies within a publication.

    What we are talking about are radically different approaches to journalism — period.

    Try reading the post again.

  • Bern

    TMATT: you are missing Jeffrey’s point: “[Time] is providing narrative and explanatory journalism, which means that it is going to have a voice and character and, yes, sometimes a point of view.”

    And that point of view, is not going to be always my point of view or your point of view or the APs point of view or the WSJ point of view.

  • Jerry

    Jeffrey and Bern propose that there is something called “narrative and explanatory” journalism versus straight-up journalism. I’m not really sure I understand what they are proposing and therefore I have some reservations.

    I’ve ruminated about this question before, but maybe the question is to what degree any particular news story needs to provide a balanced perspective on an issue versus presenting the point-of-view of a particular group with the balance coming over a period of time. Or in the case of a news magazine like Time, the question becomes does Time need to provide the point of view of all groups on an issue?

    I think that “regular” news does need that balance when it comes to controversial issues. Hence the point about the abortion coverage makes perfect sense to me.

    But I’m not so sure about the news magazine format. If, for example, Time has a piece on the Druids as a result of their being recognized as a religion in the UK, does that story need to include which Christians are OK with that and which think it’s awful? And does that story need to also include how Jews, Muslims and atheists feel in order to provide a balanced viewpoint? I then not to think so but I’m undecided enough to be open to a great counter-argument.

  • Ricky

    I think, in this case, it really comes down to the editor. One editor approved the woman-priest story; another editor, who would never have approved that one, gave the go-ahead for this one. Of course, I’m not sure- how many editors work in a newsroom?

    The David Shaw article was a fascinating read, especially considering it’s twenty years old- it’s amazing how different things are now. I find something odd, though- check out the article’s url… it’s listed under “Food”!

  • Dave

    Try to describe this magazine’s current approach to journalism.

    How about “desperate?” Time, like Newsweek, is struggling with the steady erosion of its business model, and may be trying out different styles for fit.

    There’s an email signature line that goes: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” It’s intended as a joke but, if the magazine can’t invent a profitable self, it’s not funny.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As Martha said–it was not only the slant but also the gross incompetence of the Time magazine’s ordination story that was breath taking.
    With the speed of modern communication is it too much to expect a reporter to have his or her final story vetted by someone who is very knowledgeable in a field the reporter is not educated in to point out errors and slant the reporter might not be aware of.

  • Passing By

    I read op-ed piece today and thought of this post. The money quote:

    The Internet is only an arcade where truth and fact are virtually meaningless. Indeed, there are good journalists on the net, and if one has the time or wisdom to source check and upstream information, they’re good to go. But, far too many are trusting, lazy or just eager to be spoon-fed bile and comfortable lies: left, right and center.

    He also speaks of “the funhouse of the internet” and “the diseased kidneys of the internet”.

    Well, the irony is that I just copied these quotes from (drum-roll) the internet, since the newspaper is online, as are most city newspapers these days. In fact, our local paper has more online than they publish for a dollar.

    Why did this op-ed remind me of this post? Because it illustrates a good bit of what I find frustrating about contemporary journalism, which is the willingness to shade facts to make a point and/or advance an agenda. That’s what Time did in the ordination article, at two levels: the choice of the story and the writing of the story. There is no news value to protestants ordaining women. They’ve been doing it for awhile now. So if you pretend they are Catholics, in Communion with a local Catholic bishop and the bishop of Rome, you can gin up a nifty little story that advances your personal belief system and political agenda.

    I’m not particularly opposed to bias, as such. If I know what I’m getting, I can adjust. I watched ABC News for years and it’s pretty much the Official Network of the Democratic Party. I’m pretty conservative, but enjoy Bill Moyers. I tend towards CNN because there’s not as much yelling as on Fox, but usually avoid the 24 hour news channels, except on election night. Our local paper isn’t particularly “liberal” (whatever that is), but I do like being treated with some respect, having a master’s degree and about 30 years of professional experience. David Shaw does that, Dawn Reiss does not.

    So yes, “a voice and character and, yes, sometimes a point of view.” is fine, as long as the reporter is honest and shows some respect for those who might have a different point of view. It’s an ugly aspect of current culture – left, right, and center – that we dismiss out of hand those with whom we disagree. Fox viewers are stupid, ignorant hicks, and CNN viewers are elitist, left-coast and over-educated (today’s Doonesbury is great, btw).

    Disclaimer, the guy who wrote that op-ed isn’t a professional journalist, but professional journalists published him. In any case, I hope I made the connection clear, although sometimes my brain makes weird leaps.

  • Jettboy

    “It’s an ugly aspect of current culture – left, right, and center – that we dismiss out of hand those with whom we disagree.”

    I think its a wonderful aspect of our current culture. Once again, and thanks to the Internet, Free Speech is Free again and not beholden only to the ivy leagues or the rich (who these days are becoming less rich) publishers. Yellow journalism and polemical broadsides are what the United States was founded on; and I am glad to see that return. I have my Fox and Brietbart and you have your MSNBCABCBS and Huffington Post thank you very much. If you don’t like that then I have my blog and you have yours; but we all get a voice even if we do or don’t get an audience. We can now all say what we feel and think. If that makes you uncomfortable then too bad.