5Q+1: Elizabeth Tenety, On Faith’s new editor

Last month we told you that David Waters had transitioned out of his role at the Washington Post‘s On Faith website to return to Memphis.

Waters still blogs for Under God, On Faith’s daily religion blog, but the site has gone under some recent changes and will continue to adapt under a new editor. Former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is no longer co-moderator (*updated: as of this week), and the site is no longer connected to Newsweek . Sally Quinn, who founded On Faith, is still involved, writing columns and and representing the site.

Now Elizabeth Tenety serves as editor of On Faith. She formerly was producer of Divine Impulse, On Faith’s video interview series. Here’s more from her bio:

She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.

She also happens to be a Navy wife.

You can follow On Faith on Twitter, watch some videos, read its contributors, add the RSS feed to your reader. We tend to focus on the news parts of the site, which Tenety, Michelle Boorstein and other Post reporters post on the Under God blog and on the Twitter feed. We put Tenety to the test of GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get religion news from the same places where I get my regular news — msnbc.com is my favorite source for breaking news, NYTimes/Wapo for political and national coverage and an eclectic blend of blogs for everything else in between. I think religion journalists easily identify faith angles in everyday news, so I tend to find the “religion ghosts” in stories more interesting than straight religion news. Drudge and HufPo are my guilty pleasures. My really guilty pleasure is Gawker.

RNS’ daily religion roundup is the best source out there for easily entertained religion nerds like me — and for journalists who want to be sure they have a handle on the news landscape each day. Also: People.com has a surprising number of stories that mention religion or faith — take a recent interview with Matt Damon on ‘Hereafter’ as an example.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I think mainstream journalists are still struggling to understand how religion is impacting the Tea Party movement. How can a movement promote fiscal responsibility and smaller government as top priorities if a majority of its members say they are part of the Christian conservative moment? Is smaller government a religious value? Are “constitutional conservatives” making a religious argument?

As the Tea Party evolves, journalists will continue to grapple with it. The religion angle is not as obvious as in previous incarnations of the Christian right, but more polling and an election may help us to better understand. At On Faith, our panelists provided a diversity of responses on the question of the tea party’s religiosity — <a href="http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/samuel_rodriguez/"Samuel
Rodriguez called it the “secular wing of the GOP” — but Jordan Sekulow said “social conservatives lead the tea party.”

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’m really interested in how churches–and individual believers — deal with modernity in their midst. For example, a few weeks ago the web lit up with coverage of Stephen Hawking’s comments on God. One headline read “Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe” (I did not read the book so I’m not sure how accurate that headline is). Nevertheless, atheists pounced on the “proof” and religious apologists took to defending God’s necessity or questioning the usefulness of Hawking. I suspect a number of people — at least those in the middle of the spectrum of belief — saw the headline and thought, “Hmmmm, wonder if that’s true,” and moved on, contemplating the ability of their tradition to cope with such questions. Do believers and religions deal with challenges by a return to orthodoxy or do their beliefs take on a modern adaptation? Something in between? This trend is interesting to me on the level of individual believer and religious institution.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

It is important for journalists for understand the role of religion in our world today because the world doesn’t make sense without an understanding of religion. Top stories at the Post recently included “Man arrested in alleged plot to bomb Metro stops” and “Tea party leader: Get rid of Muslim congressman.”

If we don’t understand how religion motivates people then we can’t understand the news. On a basic level, religion deals with the most profound questions one can ask: Is there a God? What does He want? How shall I live?

As we know, what people believe about God and human nature impacts what they believe about politics. Are we sinners by our nature? Are we essentially good? Is America “blessed” or “ordained” by God? Can government nudge us to righteousness or is the individual struggle for virtue the highest good? The answers to these questions have tremendous impact on values, policy and the headlines.

5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Not a recent story — but an MSNBC story from last year asked if women who want to have large families (aka, more than two children) are “addicted” to having children. Mollie called the post a “train wreck.” I think it’s also a commentary on how quickly our society is changing and how an innocent attempt to explain a phenomenon, when not executed respectfully, can alienate readers. And, of course, GR had a field day.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think the MSM — and indeed, democracy — is in trouble if large chunks of the country viscerally distrust us. The religion beat is an opportunity for mainstream journalists to cover issues that matter to readers who may (rightly or wrongly) feel marginalized or misrepresented by our media organizations. Fair coverage — reporting that is balanced, uses accurate language and explains without condescension — is a chance to narrow the gap between the “media elite” and “real America.” And for a great take on the media elite, watch this 2008 video by my Post colleagues.

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  • Dave

    One headline read “Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe” (I did not read the book so I’m not sure how accurate that headline is.)

    I wish the media, religious and otherwise, would understand that Hawking said nothing of much theological depth. There are constantly quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, of net zero mass. Since the universe consists of both positive (“normal”) and negative mass/energy it could have emerged from a quotidian fluctuation. Ie, no unknown trigger need be posited. That’s it, nothing more.

  • Jerry

    How can I become one of the minions walking respectfully in the footsteps of the media elite so well presented in that 2008 video?

    More seriously, in an era when the left considers the MSM to be the puppets of the corporate rulers of America and the right considers the MSM to be the in favor of the Islamic/Communist/atheist conspiracy, it’s nice to see that at least some have kept a sense of humor, even if there’s a whiff of gallow’s humor.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    She asks: Is smaller government a religious value?? Well, consider the alternative from the 20th Century. People of the Left who looove the works of government and want bigger and ever bigger government to solve our problems conveniently forget that the bloodiest, nastiest, most death ridden century-so far- was the product of huge all-powerful (and mostly atheist) governments.
    It is the historic proof that our Founding Fathers who were very, very wary of government power and wanted it divided in many ways: Legislative, Executive, Judicial; House, Senate; federal, state, local; were very much right to be wary, very wary.
    It makes you wonder about whether to be for ever bigger government (all for the best reasons, of course) is to be for something that becomes spectacularly evil if not kept under very tight control by law or the people–or both.
    All of which makes government and politics very much a religious arena and one’s political choices frequently of great moral importance.
    The results of this past election seemed soundly based partly on the very rational American fear of government sucking up too much power and then having its functionaries become our masters and overlords.
    It is almost comical to see the fanatic, almost bizarre nastiness (and lie ridden) fury the elitist media and the elite, government power loving Washington crowd have directed at the populist rise of a movement (The Tea Party) virtually all our Founding Fathers would have loved.
    Whatever happened to the 1960′s and 1970′s Democrat Left (of which I was once part) that used to march around with signs and slogans chanting “Power To The People.” But now these same on the Left seem terrified at the great unwashed actually finding a voice in the son of a Cuban exile family, in a Speaker of the House who swept floors and did dirty odd jobs to reach the American dream, in a former beauty queen who embraces and loves lives the liberal “Harvard educated” elites want exterminated.

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Liz and I went to grad school together – I know she’ll do great things.
    Good luck, friend! :)

  • Stoo

    “Is smaller government a religious value?”

    As in, based on fervent faith instead of observation about how the world works?


    thank you, I’ll be here all night!

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/ Nicole Neroulias

    Our founding fathers were a pretty elite bunch themselves, actually. Then again, I’m still getting used to the concept of “elite” being a negative adjective, so I appreciated that 2008 WaPo video — but check out this video from the Dallas-Fort Worth Fox affiliate for a spoof of what’s really problematic about news coverage (mainstream media and otherwise) these days!

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for weighing in. John, it seems like you picked one point and started preaching. I’m not sure how to address your comments, but I just want to keep it to the journalism issues.

    Nicole, thanks for that video. That’s pretty fun.

  • other Chris

    “I think the MSM — and indeed, democracy — is in trouble if large chunks of the country viscerally distrust us.”

    Und so?

  • Daniel Shelley

    As the nanny-state and statism encroach upon my freedoms, I have sympathies with, although I am not active in, the Tea Party movement. I would prefer to be 1. left alone, or 2. engaged respectfully, but as the level of engagement becomes less and less respectful of people of faith, and as government bloats and maxes out its credit cards, my objections grow more and more pronounced.