Pod people: Baby names and political obsessions

In the latest Crossroads podcast I talk about how the media invented a papal war on celebrity names out of whole cloth. That led into a broader discussion of how the media lost a bit of credibility this week with some poor decisions about how to cover the tragedy in Arizona.

In the post where we discussed how the media invented quotes and angles (to push the narrative that the Pope didn’t like the way the Beckhams named their children), one reader said the behavior of the media surprised him. To that, reader Michael responded that it happens all the time when it comes to the Pope’s speeches and homilies. He said that if you’re actually interested in understanding what the Pope has to say, you have to find the remarks and read them on your own. He adds:

The really interesting question is, ‘why?’ Is it simply a matter of ‘bad will’? Is it a failure of journalistic standards? Or is it something built-in to the nature of journalism itself as a form of reason, such that even ‘good journalism’ is constitutively incapable, qua journalism, of ‘getting religion’ (and many other things besides)? Cases of complete fabrication or obvious malice suggest a mixture of all three, but I’m willing to believe that most journalists are bright, relatively well-educated people operating from good will. Some are even religious. Which means that the deeper problem is ‘structural’. Journalism cannot ‘get religion’, I would suggest, because ‘getting religion’ would call into question journalism’s own animating assumptions–the neutrality of the secular sphere and journalistic method, the transparency of facts, e.g., all of which harbor a host of further, invisible presuppositions (epistemological, metaphysical, anthropological) that bear directly on the religion journalist’s subject matter. These assumptions inscribed into the journalistic craft lead even good and sympathetic religion journalists to transpose their subject matter into an idiom that is antithetical to it.

Michael adds that his argument goes over like a lead balloon here at GetReligion. I actually do sympathize with the view that there are systemic problems in journalism. But to me it’s like the old Winston Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government (except for all the others that have been tried). And while I do believe that simple adherence to good journalism practices would have taken care of all of the problems in the manufactured story about baby naming, I’ve been wondering just what in the world went wrong in recent days with coverage of the Arizona tragedy.

The coverage was flawed out of the gate, with many outlets reporting incorrectly that Rep. Gabby Giffords had been killed in the attempt on her life. From then it quickly devolved into a partisan, political, manufactured debate — also incorrect — that the shooter had been encouraged by Sarah Palin and/or the Tea Party. They couldn’t drop the narrative no matter how many facts came out differently than what they’d assumed at the outset.

I’m wondering if the real problem isn’t that many journalists are only able to understand their work in terms of politics. That’s not to say that there aren’t many legitimate political angles to cover when a member of Congress faces an assassination attempt while hosting an event to meet with constituents. But the way that politics and punditry consumed this story can not be defended. In this story’s case, religion coverage hasn’t been quite as problematic. Still, can the unforced errors we saw in recent days tell us something about why religion coverage is so banal, predictable and political? Probably.

Last night President Barack Obama gave a speech in Tucson that was well received by Americans across the spectrum, if the Twitter and early columns are any indication. The speech was not political. It celebrated the lives of those who died and those who engaged in acts of heroism. It was full of religion, not just in the civil religion sense (including readings and lessons from Scripture), but in the mention of the role religion played in the lives of those who died. He also — ever so gently — rebuked those engaged in the current feeding frenzy:

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

….If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

…..And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of the nation, in a way that would make them proud.

I must admit I’d gotten downright discouraged by the media coverage we’d seen since Saturday so I actually felt grateful when President Obama said these words.

Will this speech lead to a change in how the media cover the shooting story in the days ahead? And how will they cover the civil religion and religious content of this speech? Please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage of the religion angles. And on that note, I rather liked this Religion News Service piece written prior to the speech that anticipated which Scripture might be used.

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  • Bill R.

    Wise words from President Obama. I hope everyone’s listening.

  • michael

    Mollie,

    Thank you for taking my argument seriously. Let me respond with a few clarifications and apologize in advance for the length.

    While I doubt that there ever was a Golden Age of American Journalism, I concur in lamenting the recent demise of journalism into infotainment and blatant advocacy, the causes of which are no doubt legion. So I concede that there is an obvious distinction between good journalism and bad journalism and that the former is preferable to the latter.

    Adherence to the standards of good journalism (and a little good will) would certainly have prevented the wholesale invention of papal quotes, though as you point out, the story appears to have originated in Britain where there seem to be no discernible journalism standards and where good will toward the Pope seems to be in short supply. The very thought of the Pope seems to make many British journalists, including some assigned to cover him, apoplectic.

    But I may have led you astray in using this example as an occasion to make my point. My real question was not what causes bad religion journalism but whether good journalism is able to ‘get religion’. There is not a zero-sum answer, of course. If ‘religion’ is not a private compartment of life but a diffuse and comprhenensive phenomenon touching every aspect of reality, then journalism could not help getting religion to some extent, and indeed journalism does pretty well with the ‘human interest’ angle. But I think on balance and at a fundamental level the answer is no.

    The political preoccupations of the journalistic class are a factor, and important questions do need to be asked about journalism’s social and ideological function in upholding the power of the liberal state and society. But the deeper problem is not how journalism is corrupted, but what journalism is (the difference, I think, between what I call a structural problem and you call a systemic problem). Journalism is a kind of empiricism that harbors certain a priori conceits about knowledge and its objects, conceits, in fact, about the nature of truth itself. I don’t wish to suggest that journalism is inherently false or useless or that it doesn’t provide some valuable service to society. But I do wish to suggest that there are certain modes of reasoning that journalism cannot entertain, or really even acknowledge, without undermining its own animating assumptions or ceasing to be journalism altogether. Specifically, journalism (as distinct, perhaps, from inquisitive journalists) cannot really admit ‘what is’ questions because the very notion of a ‘fact’ assumes that ‘what is’ is either transparently given or arrived at ‘additively’ (and by means of the proper method) simply by tallying up more ‘facts’. (The ‘fact’ is thus an inherently superficial notion in a precise sense: it embodies the assumption that reality is an assemblage of surfaces without depth.) One would have to think a lot more rigorously about this of course, and that’s a bit much for a combox when I’ve already gone on way too long. Anyhow, the result is that journalism inevitably reduces and distorts its religious subject matter simply by viewing it journalistically, a view which frames, limits and frequently trivializes in advance how religion may appear to public view.

    Case in point: Benedict’s speech to the diplomatic corps, which only really became a news story after Egypt recalled its ambassador, was not just a litany of world-wide abuses against religious liberty. (Actually most reports would lead you to think that the Pope’s criticisms were confined to the Middle East and maybe China). Rather it offered a challenging (and to my mind, quite un-Liberal) proposal for what religious freedom is, rooted in a challenging (and to my mind, quite un-Liberal) proposal for who the human being is. Implicit in this was a challenging (and to my mind, quite un-Liberal) understanding of the historical role of Christianity in the culture of the West (and of ‘religion’ more generally–or better, the desire for God–in the building up of human culture). Of course no media reports picked up on any of this. One could never tell by relying on the media that these were even open questions. Because from a journalistic point of view (and from the ideological and political vantagepoint of which journalism forms a component) they aren’t. Not because journalism is neutral about such questions, but because it has already tacitly answered them.

    One last thought about that old saw from Churchill. It’s a punchy little line, but I’ve come to dislike it because it is always dragged out as an argument stopper. It’s really a counsel of resignation in the guise of self-congratulation. Its basic meaning is that the way things are is the best we can hope for, so there’s really no point in thinking about them further. Now it may be that not much can be done, just to name an example, about the New York Times’ and the global media’s vast power to police the bounds of reality by determining the contents of public discourse, or even about the tawdry state of contemporary journalism in general, dominated as it is by information technology and commecrical pressure. These things are now as pervasive as the air we breathe and just about as easy to take for granted. But it is certain that we won’t even recognize our condition for what it is, much less find breathing space with fresher air, if the difficulty of attaining ideals causes us to abandon them and if the apparent futility of ‘doing something’ about a problem prevents us from thinking about it. Besides, I’m of the mind that understanding is doing something, because I still believe, quaintly perhaps, that the truth will set you free.


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