‘Good for one fare’ in Times land

The other day, Sarah Pulliam Bailey walked GetReligion readers through an essential piece for all who are interested in the immediate future of The New York Times. I am referring to the New Yorker profile of Jill Abramson, the new editor of the great Gray Lady.

It says something about The New Yorker and, probably, Abramson that this long and very interesting piece includes several other pieces of information that would be of interest to GetReligion readers.

The general thrust of the piece is that Abramson is precisely the kind of person that supporters and critics of the Times would expect to become its editors. She is, in other words, a New Yorker’s New Yorker. All of the stereotypes are there. Go through the piece and check them off for yourselves. Pay special attention to the few references to religion, or the lack thereof.

In an earlier piece, The Jewish Journal addresses this terrain with an urbane wink:

… (The) New York Times announced that Jill Abramson will take over as the newspaper’s new editor from Bill Keller, who will become a writer for the paper. This makes Abramson the first woman to lead the paper in its history. We have it from reliable sources that Jill Abramson is Jewish — though she’s been quoted saying that in her childhood home, the family religion was the New York Times.

Does any of this offer concrete information about the content of Abramson’s beliefs? Not really. Nevertheless, at the end of The New Yorker piece there is this intriguing tidbit — which must be important because it is the closing image of this lengthy piece. The context is crucial. Here goes:

An editorial voice in news stories adds credence to the frequent charge that the Times’ news reporting often displays a liberal bias — a critique that will not be lessened by the elevation of a woman brought up in a liberal-Democratic household on the West Side of Manhattan who worked for liberal Southern Democrats and wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.

Abramson, asked whether the Times has a liberal bias, says, “I think we try hard not to” be biased, but she adds that the Times, as its public editor argued in a column seven years ago, has an insular urban bias that is sometimes apparent in social stories. She fervently believes that the Times is an equal-opportunity prober of Democrats as well as of Republicans. Asked about her own upbringing, she responds, “I’m often the one who raises the point in page-one meetings that our mix of stories is too urban in outlook, too parochial. All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America.”

All of which leads to this symbolic detail:

In the meantime, she flaunts just how much of a New Yorker she is. To celebrate her return to the city, in 2003, Abramson got a small tattoo on her right shoulder that replicates an old subway token. It was intended, she says, as a tribute to the subway system, which she rides and which she associates with her home town, and as a declaration that she had “come back to New York, likely for good.” The slogan on the coin, she said, was also meant as a reflection of her philosophy that life is not a dress rehearsal for anything: “Good for one fare.” It’s also, though, an implicit reminder of the challenge Abramson faces as she seeks to transform her newspaper. The days of a young girl’s family receiving two printed copies of the New York Times and calling it “our religion” are long gone —- as are the days when you dropped a coin into a slot before pushing through a subway turnstile.

Once again, we see the crucial formula. The leaders of the Times insist that they strive for political neutrality, while critics will continue to snicker at that thought.

But when it comes to journalism and religion? To moral issues? To culture? To ultimate issues? Well, life is not a dress rehearsal for anything else.

You take one trip and that’s that.

This is a worldview, however. Does it have journalistic content or consequences?

The other day I wrote a quick piece about Keller’s recent appearance in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library. Several days later, while working on a Scripps Howard column on this event, I finally had a chance to transcribe some of Keller’s remarks for myself.

As it turns out, his words were even more specific, and relevant to GetReligion issues, than what was originally posted at The Huffington Post.

Here is how I summarized Keller’s viewpoint on the Times and the coverage of religious and moral issues:

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.”

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

Thus, once again, we see that journalists are supposed to strive for balance and fairness when covering politics.

However, this non-advocacy approach to journalism is not required when journalists deal with hot-button “social issues,” such as, well, sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion.

Why the bright line between politics and “moral” and “social” issues? Why are these topics linked to religion second-class subjects?

Maybe it has something to do with metaphysics of that subway token.

Just saying.

IMAGE: The top combination of stock photos appeared in The Jewish Journal.

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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.

  • Jerry

    “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

    Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.”

    That, in a nutshell, is the problem. In the minds of many at the NY Times and amongst Christians, science denial is assumed to be an integral part of religion.

    The reporters and editors at the Times should, of course, look beyond that to the legions of Christians who accept science but assert moral convictions based on belief.

    After all, even atheists have ethical principles and when the ethics of one group conflict with the morals of another, news is generated that deserves balanced coverage.

  • Stephen Hoyle

    Well, Jerry, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “legions of Christians who accept science but assert moral convictions based on belief.” How do you define “science”? Does it mean “neo-Darwinian evolution”? If so, at least some would argue there is a problem because neo-Darwinian evolution implies atheism (everything happened by chance; there is no purpose or plan underlying evolution, so no need for a creator). Some sort of “guided evolution” (in other words, “theistic evolution”) might be compatible with Christian belief, but that’s not the position of the vast majority of biologists. I suspect that from the perspective of not a few, even theistic evolution is a sort of “Creationism” that is beyond the pale of respectable opinion.

  • Stan

    Thank God for the New York Times. It sounds like it is in good hands and will resist the mantra that it dumb itself down to satisfy science-averse Christians and oil companies, or lapse into the kind of casual bigotry that would ban mention of gay couples. Surely not all Christians are rural and conservative, are they?

  • Jerry

    Stephen Doyle, I was writing about Christians not biologists. A Christian does not necessarily have to accept the frame of reference of a large number of biologists.

    A big problem to me for reporters and “lay” people is scientific illiteracy combined too often with theological ignorance.

    And too often science and religion are assumed to be in conflict by too many ignoring the “God is who. Evolution is how” frame.

    That is one of the reasons I was bothered by the quote in my first post. I would like to hear more voices asserting the compatibility of religion and science. Who knows, maybe the New York Times would find that a respectable opinion!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, please focus on the journalism issues.

    One factual journalism issue does loom behind some of your comments already: What is a Creationist? I mean, I know what the word means in terms of Protestant history on the right. I know what seven-day Creationism is all about.

    There are times when I have no idea what people at the NYTs and elsewhere think that it means.

    This is actually an issue that urgently needs to be addressed in the AP Stylebook. All kinds of people end up being called Creationists who are not, historically, Creationists.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Why the bright line between “morals” and politics you write. Why indeed??? politics is the “this world” arena for discussing and debating ALL issues. Unfortunately, sometimes, Christians find their presence supremely unwanted on any issue. Ask St. Thomas More.

  • MJBubba

    It sounds like NYT editors want to pretend that they cover politics neutrally, while continuing to slant coverage against politicians who favor “social conservative” positions. They at least are honest that their coverage of religious issues is slanted.

  • Mike O.

    tmatt, you bring up a good point as to who journalists should identify as creationists. As you mention, there are those who fall somewhere between the six days of biblical creation and pure evolution and it’s unclear if it’s right to label them as creationists.

    I think one of the first things to do is ask how they identify themselves. You take one of the more prominent “old world creationist” groups like Answers In Creation and it’s clear they have no problem identifying themselves as creationists. Then there’s a group like Christians In Science who seem fine with the term “creation” but shy away from the term “creationist” (as noted on this page).

    Those who hold a more traditional “young earth creationism” may identify the old earth creationists (or guided evolutionists) as creationsts and they may not. The same is true with scientists and non-believers. Because of this there is no consensus either within or from outside that group I doubt that a change in the AP Guidebook will be much help.

    Getting back to the original article and that part that prompted your response, when Bill Keller writes, “We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism,” here’s where I stand on that. I agree that evolution should be reported as fact. As far as whether they should give equal time to traditional six-day creationism, absolutely not. Not only are there no facts for it, there is a ton of evidence against it. A newspaper or any fact-based reporting medium shouldn’t report untruths as truth.

    But where it gets tricky is in that middle ground where a believer is not disputing the scientific facts but just adding an additional element of God to the mix. Whatever Bill Keller meant when he said not to give equal time to creationism, this is an important question. Guided evolution (or whatever you want to call it) is not testable, is not falsifiable, and never can be. Therefore it’s not science. It can’t be presented as fact in an article but also can’t be presented as demonstrably untrue as traditional creationism can be.

    In short, whether a writer or the AP Guidebook calls those who believe in guided evolution creationists or not, the matter has to be treated as an article of faith — neither fact nor falsehood.

  • R.S.Newark

    When the “hot button – social issues” lap over into and on to the beliefs and actions of the people the Times writes about you can be sure the attitude supports to the point of definition the liberal attitudes for which that newpaper is famous.

  • Jerry

    If it were defined in the AP Stylebook, you’d be writing reviews about how articles ignored that. But in any event, the definition seems straight forward enough per the following:

    CREATIONISM : a doctrine or theory holding that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by God out of nothing and usually in the way described in Genesis — compare evolution 4b


    creationism (the literal belief in the account of Creation given in the Book of Genesis) “creationism denies the theory of evolution of species”