Why do we fight? Why do we write? What motivates our editor tmatt and the team at GetReligion to do what we do?
For me, as I expect it is for my colleagues, it is the love of the game. To showcase the best examples of the craft of journalism — while chiding those that fall short.
I began to follow GetReligion shortly after it went online in 2004. I was a professional acquaintance of one of its co-founders, Doug LeBlanc and a long time admirer of his work and that of the editor, Terry Mattingly. Their call to improve the craft (not police it as some critics have charged) resonated with me. When I joined three years ago I was honored by their invitation and the opportunity to participate in their work by looking at the English, European and overseas press.
I was tasked with looking at stories such as this one from last week’s Guardian entitled: “Spanish government questioned over claims of divine help in economic crisis”, with an eye towards applying the standards of classical Anglo-American journalism to the story, as well as offering American readers a window into the British and European press world.
Critics often charge The New York Times and other American newspapers with spinning the news to advance the interests of a particular party or interest group. Advocacy journalism, as it is called, violates the tenets of classical liberal journalism which rejects overt politicking. The reporter’s role is to establish the facts and let them dictate how the story is written.
European advocacy style reporting draws upon a different intellectual tradition. “All history is contemporary history,” idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce said — history exists but only in the present tense.
In this school the past has reality only in the mind of the author.
At its worst, this relativist-subjective approach leads to the Dan Rather “false but true” mindset, but most practitioners understand that the reporter must be faithful to the truth. But it is further understood that truth does not have an independent existence from the reporter’s intellectual constructs.
Advocacy reporting is the norm for many Continental newspapers, and the shading of tone to advance a particular cause is expected by most European readers. The British press remains divided on this point. Most stories in the Guardian, The Times, Telegraph, Independent and regional papers follow the classical line. Yet many stories that deal with politics, religion and what in America we call the culture wars are written from an ideological perspective.
The practical problem with this relativist approach is that it leave gaps in the story and is open to abuse. This item from the Guardian is an example. It begins:
If higher powers are helping to lift Spain out of its economic crisis, one political party wants to know exactly who they are and what they’re doing.
Amaiur, a leftwing party from the Basque country, has put a series of questions to the governing People’s party after the interior minister, Jorge Fernández Diaz, said recently he was certain that Saint Teresa was “making important intercessions” for Spain “during these tough times”.
In a letter to the government on Tuesday, Jon Iñarritu García of Amaiur asked for clarification about what help the government was getting from one of Spain’s most popular holy figures.
The article then quoted the politician as asking:
“In what ways does the minister of the interior think Saint Teresa of Avila is interceding on behalf of Spain?” he asked. “Does the government believe there are other divine and supernatural interventions affecting the current state of Spain? If so, who are they?”
“What role has the Virgin of El Rocío played in helping Spain exit the crisis?” he asked.
The article transitions with an acknowledgment that this is nonsense, but then notes that this nonsense is a weapon in the fight against reactionary clericalism. This is followed by an over the top comment equating opposition to abortion with fascism.
The letter took on a more serious tone in asking about the separation of church and state in Spain. “Does the government believe they are respecting the secular nature of the state? Does the government plan to push for a religious state?”
The increasingly blurry line between church and state in Spain has been in the headlines recently as the government moves forward with its proposal to roll back women’s access to abortion.
In an article on Diaz’s comments, El País columnist Román Orozco wrote: “If I closed my eyes … I would think I was listening to some old shirt of the Falange.” Saint Teresa was a favourite of General Franco, who kept her hand by his bed until his death.
As journalism this is garbage. It leads one to ask what the Guardian has against St Theresa? There is no pretense of balance or factual reporting here. The author takes what he acknowledges to be an absurdity and uses it to slam those who do not share his ideological views. It is simply an exercise in hyperbole that ignores facts or context.
In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, George Orwell stated, “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.”
The totalitarianism we face today in the West comes not from Stalinism or Fascism. It arises in the the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty of our intellectual and philosophical worlds. It is in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right, that one can find the best Guardian reporting. But the Guardian at times represents the ugliest impulses of our intellectual lives.
Does this article deserve condemnation? It is riddled with errors, condescending towards it subject, and is entirely predictable. And, it is malicious.
That unfashionable poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, wrote in her “Dirge Without Music”:
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
A journalist who takes his craft seriously, who is not resigned to the world around him, who writes with moral purpose (but without moralizing) prepares stories that are a joy to read. This article is not one of them.
And why do we write? To speak out against the totalitarianism of small minds and corrupt reporting.