Are there any culture wars inside the Great Gray Lady?

Here’s a safe prediction for 2014: Look for another year with tough culture wars cases — whether from courthouses in Utah or your local Christian university or parachurch ministry — rolling toward the church-state crossroads at the U.S. Supreme Court.

If that’s the case, journalists will continue to face a numbing barrage of stories in which they will be challenged to accurately and fairly report the views of activists on both the religious left and Religious Right.

Yeah, right.

With that in mind, consider this interesting Quora.com comment by elite columnist Nicholas Kristof, in response to this question: “What is the culture like at The New York Times?”

Things start rather slowly, before candor strikes:

There isn’t really a simple answer to this question, because the culture of the Times varies by section and even time of day. In my part of the building, where the opinion columnists have their offices, it tends to be a bit more relaxed, even sleepy, while the metro desk at deadline on a big story will be frenetic and full of electricity. When I started at The Times in 1984, it was mostly male, and we wore jacket and ties; there was plenty of smoking and drinking. These days, the dress code is much more casual, and somewhat more earnest; not a lot of whiskey bottles hidden around today. There are also lots of women, which means there’s less of a locker room atmosphere. …

But what about the word “culture” as in, well, you know what?

People sometimes ask if everybody is liberal politically, but I’d say that journalists define themselves less by where they are on the political spectrum and more as skeptics providing oversight to whoever is in power.

Classic answer. How many Americans still accept that, when looking Times coverage of, well, you know, certain issues?

I would say, though, that while there is a range of ideology from liberal to conservative on political and fiscal issues, on social issues most journalists (everywhere,not just at The Times) tend to have an urban bias: They are more likely to be for gun control and gay marriage than the general public, and much more likely to believe in evolution. They are also less likely to have served in the military or to have working class backgrounds.

That’s more like it. Now, what is the religious, the doctrinal content (even strictly secular beliefs have doctrinal implications) of an “urban bias”? Is that essentially saying that elite urbanites find it easier to embrace doctrinally liberal forms of religion, as opposed to those who believe in transcendent, eternal doctrines?

What was it that William Proctor — author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times” — said long ago?

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”

“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”

Is that statement compatible with Kristof’s view of his newsroom’s culture?

And (you knew this was coming), is it compatible with the views of former Times editor Bill Keller, expressed in those remarkable public remarks days after left the editor’s desk?

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. …

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.”

So, once again, how does this elite, urban, cultural bias — it seems to be universally acknowledged in discussions of the The Times these days — affect coverage of religious/moral issues such as, well, sex, salvation, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, health-care mandates, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other “cultural” news stories?

Just asking. Again. Have a nice year.

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.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Just a question? Could the liberal tilt of much of the media be caused by the fact that so many writers apparently had their values shaped by the academic world instead of the world of “hard knocks” or everyday life????. It might not be an issue of urban influences
    My impression is that up until about 4 or 5 decades ago “ink stained wretches” learned their trade on the streets, in the barroom, at the family table, etc.–not in a classroom listening to professors pontificating. Maybe that is why some reporters in places like the Times are so convinced they couldn’t be wrong on anything. Many-especially the liberal elites– wouldn’t even consider that Joe The Plumber could be right about anything. Our common humanity as a source of wisdom is sometimes overlooked by elites.

    • tmatt

      There used to be more of a sense of balance in newsrooms between college types, military “Stars and Stripes” people and labor-union scribes. Blue collars mixed with the white. That is not the case at the top of the journalism power pyramid, for sure.

      • Darren Blair

        Makes you wonder what would happen if the top people at the big papers traded places with some top people from smaller papers for a brief period.

  • Derek Johnson

    More of a general comment, but I would like to see more stories about the conservative reaction of the LDS church to the overturning of Utah’s SSM ban. Utah’s the most conservative to get SSM, & the only thing I can find is the parade of “happy gay couples get married.” It’s getting boring.

    • John Pack Lambert

      There have been multiple rallies for marriage in Utah. The Deseret News has covered some of them.

  • John Pack Lambert

    It is sad that the New York Times can be so myopic and really get away with it. I have given up much hope of fair coverage, when so many debates have been framed with attack words that insult and denigrate the opposition as inherently evil. This really comes through in discussions of the definition of marriage, or as they normally are, refusals by the NYT and its allies to recognize that there can be a discussion because they refuse to recognize there is any definition but their own.


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