Ryan: Midwesterner, politico and (rumor has it) Catholic

Let’s face it, GetReligion readers, when I see a Washington Post headline that says something like “Paul Ryan: Midwesterner, Catholic, intellectual,” I just can’t help myself. I grab a computer printout of the text, get out my yellow highlighter pen and get to work.

My assumption, of course, is that the story is going to spill a significant amount of ink on all three of those subjects. Wouldn’t you say that it’s safe to assume that, after reading that headline?

Midwesterner.

Catholic.

Intellectual.

For me, it would be especially important to attempt to connect points two and three, seeing as how the Catholic intellectual tradition has, through the ages, played a rather significant role in that whole Western culture thing.

So what does this Post story deliver, on those two issues, in its 33 paragraphs or so of content?

Trust me, I didn’t have to use up a lot of yellow ink on this one. Here we go:

He has cited his Catholic faith and author Ayn Rand as major influences on his conservative thinking.

That’s it.

OK, that was pretty harsh of me. You need to see that awesome, detailed, sentence in context.

Romney is the son of a politician who found great success in the private sector. Ryan is the son of a lawyer who died when Ryan was 16. He has spent almost his entire adult life in Washington — either in government or in think tanks trying to influence government. He has cited his Catholic faith and author Ayn Rand as major influences on his conservative thinking.

There you go, do you feel better now?

Probably not so much.

So what did the Post team need to do, other than gather actual journalism-based material, to produce a daily news story that justified that headline? Well, what did they do (a) to cover that key word “Midwesterner” and, of course, (b) to cover one side of this man’s political views? The team managed to get that work done. I was particularly fond of this highly detailed personal material that ran right up top:

Ryan, 42, still lives in his home town of Janesville, Wis., with his wife, Janna, and their three children, and he sleeps in his congressional office on weeknights. In his private life, Ryan pursues the hobbies of an everyman with an overachiever’s zeal. He sweats through grueling “P90x” workouts in the House gym. He beats other legislators in contests to recite the most lines from “Fletch.” And he fishes for catfish — with his bare hands.

[Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.)] remembered once calling Ryan’s cellphone on a weekend: Ryan answered in a whisper. Flake talked for five minutes about the farm bill before Ryan cut him off: “Can I call you back? I’m in a deer stand.”

It should have been easy to have gathered similar material about Ryan the Catholic, at the level of schooling, parish religious education, reading habits, etc. Once again, the goal is to connect “faith to facts,” as noted in that Poynter.org essay that I have been quoting quite a lot, as of late.

If Ryan’s faith deserved attention in the headline, it deserved actual reporting in the story. And if a vague reference to “his Catholic faith” is going to be served up as equal to his obsession, a decade or so ago, with author Ayn Rand, then both halves of that equation needed to have been fleshed out with some real journalism. (For starters, I would like to propose that all journalists, when doing online searches linked to this part of Ryan’s life, include the words “Thomas Aquinas” as well as “Any Rand.”)

Ryan is not hiding his beliefs. For starters this man stood at a podium in public and delivered the Whittington Lecture — facing his Catholic critics — last April at Georgetown University. You can get the whole thing with a few clicks of a mouse. It’s packed with all kinds of material that Catholics — left, center and right — would be able to trace back into their church’s intellectual universe, before debating Ryan’s views on these topics. It would be rather easy to do a balanced, responsible job of finding Catholics with strong, quotable views on these topics.

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. Your GetReligionistas are rather fond of that whole journalism thing, aren’t we? How silly of us. If you are interested in the debates about Ryan’s political views and his possible impact on the White House race, this story is meant for you. If you are interested in his faith or his intellect — not so much.

I guess that headline was just a mistake, or roughly two-thirds of it.

Print Friendly

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.