10 years of GetReligion: Why we are still here, part I

The late Leonard Smith was, according to his Jan. 26 obituary at the Greenwich Time newspaper in Southwest Connecticut, a radically independent man who never hid his beliefs. A native of New York City, he was World War II veteran and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He liked to sail and raise hunting dogs. He was devoted to his wife and five kids, to the churches they frequented and to charities.

I have a strong suspicion that quite a few faithful GetReligion readers would have liked Mr. Smith — a whole lot.

Why is that? Consider this passage at the end of his obituary:

Leonard Smith hated pointless bureaucracy, thoughtless inefficiency and bad ideas born of good intentions. He loved his wife, admired and respected his children and liked just about every dog he ever met. He will be greatly missed by those he loved and those who loved him. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you cancel your subscription to The New York Times.

Yes, there are quite a few people in this great land of ours who not afraid to share their negative feelings about The New York Times.

As that famous 2005 Times self study — “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” — noted:

We fully accept that there are those who love to hate The Times. Though there may be no dissuading them, often there is value in engaging with more open-minded critics. And beyond that debate, productive communication is certainly possible with a much larger body of people — readers and nonreaders alike — whose opinions of The Times are not so fixed. We should focus our efforts on them, with the goal of making it far easier for them to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism.

“Amen” to that. No, honest.

When Douglas LeBlanc and I launched GetReligion 10 years ago our goal was to offer both positive and negative criticism of religion coverage in the mainstream press. (The first post is dated Feb. 1, 2004, but it went live on Feb. 2.) We wanted to be able to defend the press from many religious readers who, essentially, just want to see PR releases backing their side of any argument. Yes, and we wanted to be able to criticize errors of fact, glaring religion-shaped holes in stories (more on those “ghosts” later) and stories that failed to offer accurate, balanced treatment of serious voices in public debates.

To get specific, we wanted to be able to defend The New York Times from critics who never cut that great newspaper any slack, who never see the amazingly broad coverage that it provides day after day. We wanted to argue that the problem with the Times is that it is inconsistent in its pursuit of the essential journalism virtues. It offers page after page of quality coverage and then, boom, readers run into a story that may as well have been written in the press office of this or that activist group linked to the very issue being covered.

But here’s the key: We wanted to be able to argue that the problems were caused by an inconsistent approach to news, not by a specific bias in the newspaper that was being applied in a doctrinaire manner (as many critics would insist).

And then you know who said you know what.

One more time, let’s look at some of Bill Keller’s remarks at that dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, days after he stepped down as editor of the Times. This is drawn from one of my weekly “On Religion” columns, which are now carried by the Universal Uclick syndicate:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. …

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.”

“Aside.”

That’s the key word, of course.

In other words, in the view of its former editor the Times does in fact have a consistent template, a “super story,” that guides its coverage of social and moral issues. And what are some of those issues? As I observed at that time, with a bit of snark:

Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That’s all.

Ever since that earthquake in 2011, your GetReligionistas have faced a crucial question when considering news reports in the Times, which remains the world’s most influential newsroom (with BBC right up there, too): Do readers have a right to expect balance, accuracy and fairness in the Times when it is covering moral, social and religious issues?

Another question flows naturally out of that one: If the Times remains crucial when it comes to shaping the values of elite journalists in the United States and elsewhere, have the rules essentially changed on the religion beat almost everywhere? Are there now approved religious groups and doctrines that will receive intentionally better, slanted, news coverage in comparison with those groups and doctrines that are viewed as heretical by mainstream journalists who follow the lead of the theologians at the Times?

If so, should the GetReligionistas simply accept that and move on? Do we continue to beat our heads on that wall?

Simply stated, the answer is “yes.”

We will continue to try to argue that religion news deserves the same kind of accurate, balanced and fair coverage as the news served up on any other beat. Yes, we believe that we should continue to argue that journalists, even those at the Times, should be praised when they provide solid journalism and criticized when they provide coverage that resembles PR or, at best, as quality advocacy journalism in a publication that openly admits its biases. Yes, we think that informed, crucial voices on both sides of hot-button issues deserve fair, accurate coverage.

As I like to say: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

And what about those religion-shaped holes in so many news stories? More on that as the week rolls on. It’s going to take your GetReligionistas some time to properly mark this 10th anniversary, both for technical and professional reasons. In some ways we are going back to the future, but it will take time to share the details.

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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.

  • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

    Happy anniversary, tmatt!

    • tmatt

      Uh, ok.

  • Ira Rifkin

    I certainly don’t always agree with your story selections or analysis, but I find GR to be both a valuable resource for my students and a fun read as a (mostly) ex-religion reporter myself. Keep up the fine work, and thanks.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Micheal Hickerson

    Happy anniversary! Not sure if I should hope you’ll be around for another 10 years, or hope that journalists will “get” religion so thoroughly that GR won’t be needed.


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