Anyone who has ever tried to do media criticism knows that it is so, so easy to complain about the work of others, especially when you do not know all of the factors that led to a particular story being reported, written and edited in a particular way.
This is why you will rarely see your GetReligionistas criticize reporters — repeat, reporters — by name. We prefer to attribute whatever is published or broadcast to the news organization as a whole. Thus, I will talk about a story produced by the “Washington Post team” instead of pinning that story on the reporter whose byline is at the top.
People who have never worked in mainstream newsrooms often question why we do this.
Why? Well, any experienced reporter knows what its like to turn in a perfectly balanced, fair-minded story and then have the copy desk — perhaps because the amount of space in that day’s paper changed — cut off the final third of your piece, leaving it shamefully unbalanced.
Also, there is no way to know if a reporter begged editors for additional time to conduct interviews that would provided needed balance in a piece, or perhaps to run down needed background material, and was denied the opportunity to do so. There’s no way to know if a reporter made a particular error or if that error was edited into the piece by someone else. There’s no way to know if a reporter had fantastic material that she or he wanted to include in a story, but editors simply said, “No way.” Perhaps the reporter asked fantastic follow-up questions, but was denied the chance to put the results into digital ink.
I thought about these realities when reading the recent New York Times piece about a rare public appearance by Justice Clarence Thomas in which he consented to answer some rather probing questions about the law, race and, yes, his faith.
At least twice in this piece I found myself wanting to scream, “A follow-up question, a follow-up question, my cyber-kingdom for a follow-up question!” Let’s see if GetReligion readers have similar responses.
First, a word of background: People who have followed his career may or may not know that the young Thomas was a Catholic, then for a decade or so was active as a conservative Episcopalian — the church affiliation of this wife, Ginni Thomas. However, in the late 1990s he returned to Communion with the Church of Rome, although there have been reports that he frequently attends Anglican services with his wife, as well.Early on in this particular interview, Thomas noted that when he was young he found himself part of a minority inside a minority in a strange land. He was an African-American Catholic living in the Deep South. That information preceded this fascinating passage:
The occasion for the interview was the Constitution’s 225th anniversary and the publication of a new book called “America’s Unwritten Constitution.” Its author, Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale, questioned Justice Thomas for more than an hour.
When Professor Amar mentioned that there are, for the first time in history, no Protestants on the Supreme Court, Justice Thomas changed the subject.
“We’re all from the Ivy League,” he said. “That seems to be more relevant than what faith we are.” (Justice Thomas is one of six Catholics on the court. The other three justices are Jewish.)
Oh, if only Amar had asked if — from Thomas’ point of view — this remark actually represented a change in the subject.
Might the justice have meant exactly what he said? In other words, when describing the true religious affiliations of those on the court, perhaps it is more accurate to note that they are all from the Ivy League, as opposed to saying that they are either Catholics or Jews. Are all of the Catholics on the court, for example, practicing members of the same church, when push comes to shove?
That passage led directly into the following:
(Thomas) did say that religion played an important role in the nation’s founding and in his own life.
“I grew up in a religious environment, and I’m proud of it,” he said. “I was going to be a priest; I’m proud of it. And I thank God I believe in God, or I would probably be enormously angry right now.”
Oh, for another follow-up question — which may or may not have been an option for the Times team. I mean, I think there is a good chance that Justice Thomas is not interested in being interviewed by anyone from the Times, a stance that is common among many traditional Catholics these days.
This Times story, of course, connects Thomas’ anger with the the sexual-harassment storm that surrounded his confirmation to the court. That may be true, but that is a matter of interpretation, not basic reporting. One thing is clear: It would have been very interesting to know (a) the sources of anger that trouble this justice and (b) how his faith helps him cope with them.
The result is a fascinating story, yet one that remains thoroughly haunted by questions that were not asked and, thus, were not answered.