A long, long, time ago — almost a decade, in fact — there was a Los Angeles Times editor who wrote a letter to his section editors in which he defended solid, old-fashioned American journalism. You know, the kind that strives to accurately quote informed voices on both sides of controversial issues, perhaps even in a way that promotes informed, balanced, constructive debate and civic life.
The editor’s name was John Carroll. His famous memo started like this:
I’m concerned about the perception — and the occasional reality — that the Times is a liberal, “politically correct” newspaper. Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right. We did so today with the front-page story on the bill in Texas that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer.
The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring “so-called counseling of patients.” I don’t think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it “so-called,” a phrase that is loaded with derision.
It was clear that most mainstream scientists were, at that time, discounting the abortion-breast cancer link. The issue, for Carroll, was that his staff made no attempt to talk to mainstream scientists who did support this stance. Of course, there were scientists — then and now — who believe they have evidence for this stance.
Instead of talking to scientists about science, on the pro-life side of the debate, the Los Angeles Times team elected to go in other directions. Carroll wrote:
The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.
Such a person makes no appearance in the story’s lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he “has a professional background in property management.” Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn’t we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?
It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views. Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don’t need to waste our readers’ time with it.
But why does this matter? What’s the point? For Carroll, the ultimate journalistic goal was to produce coverage that accurately and fairly represented the views of stakeholders on both sides of the debate. His bottom line?
We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.
I’m no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.
I am well aware, obviously, that Carroll no longer edits the Times and that there have been many changes in that newsroom in the years since then.
Still, I would like GetReligion readers to think about the points that Carroll made while reading the following Los Angeles Times report about the decision by Chick-fil-A executives to go silent on issues linked to centuries of Christian teachings on marriage and family. As you read the story, search for representative, informed voices speaking for religious traditionalists — in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. — who would be troubled by this decision.
You do remember the case, right? Here’s the update:
Chick-fil-A will no longer donate money to anti-gay groups or discuss hot-button political issues after an executive’s controversial comments this summer landed the fast-food chain in the middle of the gay marriage debate.
Executives agreed in recent meetings to stop funding groups opposed to same-sex unions, including Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage, according to Chicago Alderman Proco Joe Moreno.
Earlier this summer, Moreno became a key critic of Chick-fil-A after the Atlanta company’s president, Dan Cathy, said in an interview that his business was “guilty as charged” of supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit.”
When you click the “comment” option, please avoid several non-journalistic issues. We are not here to discuss the newspaper’s use of the term “anti-gay” to describe the nondenominational groups that received money from this foundation. Also, it is clear that pro-gay rights groups had every right to protest the religious beliefs and activities of Chick-fil-A leaders. The corporation’s leaders had every right to respond to the resulting media tsunami in the way that they did.
No, the purpose of this post is to ask if the current Times team produced a journalistic product that attempted, in any way, to take seriously the views of stakeholders on both sides of this debate. Find the conservative voices in this piece and compare their offerings, in size and serious content, to those of the gay-rights supporters who are asked to discuss this decision.
In light of the Carroll memo, what kind of news story is this? How seriously does this take the serious religious and legal arguments on both sides?
Good luck with that.