The Boston Globe veers into the doctrines of ‘Kellerism’

Just the other day, I heard a long-time GetReligion reader use a very interesting new journalism term — “Kellerism.”

Wait for it, faithful readers. Let’s walk through this with newcomers to the site. What, pray tell, are the key beliefs in the journalistic philosophy that is “Kellerism”?

Yes, this is another reference to the pronouncements of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 remarks (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Here, once again, is a chunk of an “On Religion” column I wrote about that event, when the newly retired Keller was asked if — that old question — the Times is a “liberal newspaper.”

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

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 here is first core “Kellerism” doctrine: There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine is related to that and can be glimpsed near the end of Keller’s response (.pdf here) to the famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” self-study of the Times, during troubled ethical times in 2005. The key is that Keller insisted that he was committed to diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc. However, he was silent or gently critical when addressing the study’s calls for improved cultural and intellectual diversity. The Times was diverse enough, it appears, on those counts.

Yes, criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of traditional religious believers was raised as a concern by the committee that wrote the report.

So why bring up this new term in a post topped with a photo of The Boston Globe building?

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Key ‘moderate’ Catholic, hailed by choir on left

So The Washington Post ran a story the other day that made me feel very strange, for strictly journalistic and, yes, political reasons.

The story focused on the retirement of John Carr, for 25 years a key public policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops. The whole point of the story is that the bishops are now being led by people — I assumed that meant Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — who are, shall we say, immoderate. They are too conservative, you see, because they are rather obsessed with issues such as abortion, marriage and religious liberty.

Carr, on the other hand, is a moderate’s moderate. From all indications, he appears to be a pro-life Democrat (that’s an accurate label for me, as well) who has been a crucial leader among liberal evangelicals, progressive Catholics and other folks of that ilk. Most of all, the story wants readers to understand that Carr’s departure could mean hard times for true Catholic moderates who care about church teachings on issues of justice and peace.

This made me think of that famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf) study of The New York Times issued back in 2005, following several scandals linked to the world’s most powerful newsroom. In response, editor Bill Keller, yes that Bill Keller, wrote a response entitled “Assuring Our Credibility” (.pdf) that included these words about the challenges journalists face when covering political and religious issues:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

Thus, I would like GetReligion readers to read the Post story about Carr with that passage in mind.

What’s my point? Well, I think that Carr almost certainly can be called a “moderate” Catholic in that his life’s work falls somewhere in between the church’s truly liberal branch and the whole world of doctrinally conservative Catholics. However, to establish his “moderate” credentials, it would be good to hear Carr’s work evaluated by his critics on both sides of this divide. Correct?

Instead, this is what we get:

The mixing of religion and politics engenders powerful passions, but insiders know that faith advocates typically aren’t players in Washington. Carr is one of the few exceptions. But his influence is only part of the reason Carr’s exit … is being mourned. Some are also concerned about who will come after him.

At a time when Catholics are watching their community become increasingly polarized along political lines,

Carr is considered a dying breed: a Catholic moderate with a foot firmly in both camps. He worked for the White House Conference on Families under President Jimmy Carter and was a Democratic candidate. He has also zealously slammed the Obama White House for its mandate that employers provide contraception coverage to employees. At a good-bye event this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters, Carr’s voice sounded angriest when he bemoaned the Bush-led Iraq War.

Catholics are becoming more divided over whether they focus on church teachings against war and poverty or the ones against abortion and gay marriage. Catholic progressives are particularly worried about Carr leaving as Church officialdom in recent years has put greater and greater emphasis on defending the unborn.

“If John Carr hadn’t been there for the past 20 years, who knows what would have happened?” said John Gehring, who focuses on Catholic issues for the left-leaning advocacy group Faith in Public Life and often clashes with the bishops.

GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that the next quote comes from Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and so forth and so on. Later on, we hear from Carr’s brother — New York Times media columnist David Carr.

So here is my question: Read this story and name, for me, the key voice evaluating Carr’s work and career from the conservative side of the Catholic establishment, whether that is in politics, higher education or even the church hierarchy.

Read the story, twice if need be. Look for the conservative voices, amid all of the high-profile voices on the left and on the center-left that are featured in this news — not editorial page — report. There should be informed, articulate conservatives who help readers evaluate Carr’s work. Right? I mean, this is journalism, after all, not a work of advocacy writing.

So who is your favorite Catholic conservative featured in this news story?

Good luck with that.

What is this? Forbes goes to bat for Eden Foods critics

Several years ago, your GetReligionistas created a new item in our archives list of news “categories.” As faithful readers know, we focus on hard-news material produced by mainstream news organizations. The only time that we write about editorial columns, op-ed pieces, academic essays or the like is when they focus directly on issues in our home turf — religion-beat news.

However, every now and then people would send us URLs for items published by religious wire services, denominational magazines or non-profit sources linked to religious causes that — from their point of view — focused on a valid news story that wasn’t getting mainstream-press ink. After pondering this dilemma for a while, we began using a “Got news?” headline slug and created a new category.

Now it’s time for another category, one that we have been pondering for quite some time. The headline slug is, as you see above, “What is this?” We seriously considered “WTF?” but decided that didn’t mesh well with the sober tone that we strive to maintain around here. I mean, other than Jim Davis and his wild puns, and Father George Conger and his off-beat illustrations, and … You get the point.

So what is the point of this new category? What is this new niche?

One of our main goals, here at GetReligion, is to defend the basic values of what historians have long called the “American” model of the press, with its commitment to accuracy, fairness and even balance in coverage of the news (especially on hot-button topics). The alternative is often called the “European” model of the press, with editors and reporters producing stories that fit into an editorial template that supports the publication’s political slant.

In other words, these publications are biased and the editors admit that right up front. No one expects balanced coverage of social issues at Rolling Stone or World magazine, to name two publications with radically different moral perspectives.

But, to cut to the chase, what about The New York Times?

In recent years, the world’s most powerful newspaper has produced a frustrating mixture of “American” and “European” coverage, with perfectly balanced and fair-minded stories placed right next to other reports that made zero attempt to hide the bias of the editors. That is why those 2011 remarks by former editor Bill Keller — click here for background — were so important. He openly stated that it was no longer necessary for Times journalists to be objective, fair and balanced in coverage of news linked to moral, cultural and religious topics — such as abortion, gay rights, etc.

It appears that the editors of many other publications have made similar decisions, which is why frustrated GetReligion readers send us so many URLs pointing toward “news” articles that read like editorial essays. How often do we see stories that feature a wide variety of voices on one side of a hot-button topic and then zero material accurately expressing the views of people on the other side? How often do we see paragraph after paragraph of background material that is both slanted and free of any attribution?

This brings me, finally, to the first article in this new category. It’s from Forbes and, well, it reads like a press release for activists on one side of a battle linked to the Health and Human Services contraceptives mandate.

What is this? A news article? An editorial essay?

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Resistance to the Guardian is futile

The General Synod of the Church of England — the legislative organ of the Protestant state church — will take up the question of women bishops this week. Should the delegates to synod be unsure as to how they should vote, the doctrinal authorities at The Guardian appear to be instructing them what they must do.

On July 9 the newspaper of the English establishment ran a silly news report entitled “Church of England women bishops: archbishops will overrule synod” that made the extraordinary but unsubstantiated claim that unless synod did what the establishment wanted, the archbishop of Canterbury would do it for them.

Why do I say that this story is silly? Why that word? Besides being petulant, exaggerated and, in journalism terms, unbalanced — it is also untrue. Rumor and opinion are packaged as fact. What the reader gets is the views of certain unnamed persons of what ought to be done, presented as what is to be done.

What we see in this story is not an example of media bias, but basic advocacy journalism. Let me be clear: This is not a failure to get religion or simple error. The non-objective approach taken by The Guardian is deliberate. To use that new GetReligion term, this is “Kellerism.”

The lede states:

The archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is preparing to drive through legislation to allow women bishops even if it is rejected by the church’s governing body, the General Synod. The synod is poised to vote again on the vexed plan next week but senior sources have told the Guardian that should the move be blocked again, there are now options being considered to force the change on the church.

The story is that if the plan for women bishops is thwarted a third time by the synod the archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, will “force the change” through synod. Yet a close reading of the two sentences shows us the strength of the first is being modified by the second. The subject shifts from the archbishop will act to the archbishop is being presented with a choice of options.

Sources are cited in support of the archbishop’s putsch — but they are not named. The standard practice in classic journalism is to give an identity to your source so that the reader may judge the source’s credibility. What is fact? What is gossip? What is wishful thinking? What motives are at play?

When the source cannot be revealed, there is most often an explanation why and some version of this clause appears in the story: “a source with direct knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak to the media told …. ”

The Guardian article offers several options but does not take their measure. What is fantasy? The ground shifts with each paragraph in this story. The title states “archbishops” implying this is about the archbishops of Canterbury and York. The lede, states the archbishop of Canterbury will act. (Have we lost York?) The details in support of the lede say these are options and scenarios suggested by unnamed pro-women bishop campaigners.

The credibility of the article is further damaged with this paragraph.

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Persecution in India: It matters only if it’s about Muslims

Nice to know the New York Times cares so much about religious freedom in India — at least for Muslims.

“For Nation’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory,” warns a headline in an 1,100-plus-word story on that nation’s elections Friday. And the newspaper wastes no time in sympathizing, with these as the third and fourth paragraphs:

Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage when telling of the withdrawn apartment offers, rejected job applications and turned-down loans that are part of living in the country for them. As a group, Muslims have fallen badly behind Hindus in recent decades in education, employment and economic status, with persistent discrimination a key reason. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans.

Now, after a landslide electoral triumph Friday by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Hindu nationalists, some Muslims here said they were worried that their place in India could become even more tenuous.

The article then quotes an amazing nine sources: journalists, small businessmen, even a professor in London. They remind us of modern India’s violent birth in 1947, when most Muslims were split off into Pakistan. They tell about housing discrimination, with some Hindus even complaining that Muslim neighbors would lower property values.

The sources tell about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, who died in riots in 2002 in Gujarat, Modi’s home state in India. (However, Modi was personally cleared of any participation.) And a member of the “liberal intelligentsia,” as the Times calls him, fears that Modi is a “threat to India’s secularism.”

All that is certainly newsworthy stuff when 15 percent of all Indians belong to the world’s second-largest religion. Helping nearly 190 million people feel safer is a good idea. But what about the safety of Indian Christians and other religious minorities?

Sure, they may amount to less than 28 million Indians, but they’re members of the world’s largest religion — which, of course, is the majority of the Times’ American readers. Yet a search of recent Times stories, especially connected with the election, shows no such concern for them.

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LATimes offers readers a simple, one-sided take on Vatican

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“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 what were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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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?

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Pondering duck doctrines and our bubble-bound media elite

Let’s see. Where should we begin on this oh-so-bizarre morning?

What will it be, Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty?

Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty? As my favorite French History professor at Baylor University used to say, with a world-weary and exasperated sigh: “What a world.”

First, let me offer a few relevant confessions on my part.

I would like to echo the following Twitter comment by one of the scribes who often hangs out in my favorite coffee shop here in our neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Yes, this man is a bit of an elite Yankee, but he is what he is. Ross Douthat works for The New York Times. So, sue him.

I’m good to go with all of that, except for the “Merry Christmas” reference — since we are still in Advent, after all. Douthat must be one of those post-Vatican II Catholics (just kidding).

Another confession: I have never watched a single episode of “Duck Dynasty,” although I have tried to do so several times. It’s just not my style. Frankly, when it comes to the masculine virtues I favor Jane Austen’s Captain Frederick Wentworth over the the guys in the duck crew. I also lived in the mountains of Tennessee for six years (and plan to live there again someday) and I’ve never even watched a NASCAR race on television. I do, however, like barbecue. A lot. I also like ZZ Top and Eastern Orthodox bishops, so I’m OK with the beards.

There, I needed to get all of that off my chest. Now, I can confess that there is one element of the Duck Dynasty media storm that fascinates me.

Let’s try, for a minute, to ignore duck patriarch Phil Robertson’s reflections on genitalia — although I rather think that if he had rapped that stuff with a strong backbeat, it would have viewed as a kind of elderly Eminem thing. You know, Eminem has to keep his street cred. Elite media folks from places like Harvard and Yale tend to respect street cred way more than they do swamp cred.

No, I want to join the once and always GetReligionista M.Z. Hemingway in thinking that the key to this particular duck blind spot is found in this chunk of Robertson GQ prose:

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