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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Ghost in that NYTimes Justice Kennedy hagiography

It’s time for a quick dip into my unusually thick GetReligion folder of guilt, that place where I stash stories that I know deserve a bite of criticism, but more pressing matters (think Syria) keep pushing them back in the cyber-queue.

The other day, The New York Times ran what was essentially a work of hagiography in praise of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. There is not a single surprising word in this story, not a random thought that would upset the loyal community of Times readers who view it as holy writ and would be quick to challenge any violations of orthodoxy.

Also, I realize that — hello former editor and now columnist Bill Keller — as a tolerant, urban, intelligent source of information, there is no need for the Times team to provide any balancing or challenging information in this work of advocacy journalism.

Nevertheless, I do have a question about an interesting piece of information (yes, a religion ghost) that is missing in this report. We’re talking about basic information, here, not opposing points of view.

Now, note that — right up top — the key to the story is that gay rights leaders have been surprised by the strength of the justice’s convictions on this issue. In fact, they had reasons to believe he would not support their cause. Thus the headline: “Surprising Friend of Gay Rights in a High Place.” Here is the lede and then a crucial chunk of background material:

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang “Give ’Em Hope” for a revered and in some ways surprising guest who shared a California stage with them last month: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

And later:

The praise now being showered on Justice Kennedy by gay rights advocates — and the deep disappointment of conservatives — would have been hard to imagine when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1987. Gay rights groups were more than a little wary then. On the federal appeals court in California, where Justice Kennedy had served for 13 years, he heard five cases concerning gay rights. He voted against the gay rights claim every time.

“I have to say that Kennedy seems rather obtuse on important gay issues and must be counted as a likely vote against us on most matters likely to come before the Supreme Court,” Arthur S. Leonard, an authority on gay rights at New York Law School, wrote in The New York Native, a newspaper that focused on gay issues.

The justice’s trajectory since then has been a product of overlapping factors, associates and observers say. His Supreme Court jurisprudence is characterized by an expansive commitment to individual liberty. He believes that American courts should consider international norms, and foreign courts have expanded gay rights. His politics, reflecting his background as a Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist, tend toward fiscal conservatism and moderate social views. And he has long had gay friends.

Yes, Kennedy is a Republican, the story notes, but he is a California Republican. Good point, that. Culture and context are important.

However, there is an interesting “C” word missing in this piece, a word that probably had something to do with the original decision by Reagan & Co. to put Kennedy on the high court.

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Big tests for media’s abortion message machine

Someone on Twitter noticed something illuminating about mainstream media coverage of social issues that’s worth a look. Remember, first, how tmatt quoted the New York Times‘ Bill Keller on the bias dividing line of that paper:

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.”

While many outlets are being more open and honest about their inability to cover — without, at times, quite dramatic bias — social issues, it’s still interesting to just see it in practice. So @DavidSeawright’s note is interesting:

Framing: Gay marriage, at 53%, has “country as a whole.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/06/27/a-majority-of-the-country-supports-gay-marriage-will-any-2016-republican-presidential-candidate/ … Pro-life “polls pretty well” at 59% http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2013/07/12/food-stamps-abortion-pose-big-tests-for-gop-message-machine/?wprss=rss_the-fix&clsrd …

Both stories are from the same media outlet, the Washington Post. Indeed, they are from the same section — “The Fix.” Both stories even share a reporter. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? It’s just a very good example of the subtle ways in which stories are framed. It’s perhaps even more pronounced if you look at the headlines (which is all that many people do, of course):

A majority of the country supports gay marriage. Will any 2016 Republican presidential candidate?

Food stamps, abortion pose big tests for GOP message machine

Fascinating. Just fascinating. At the end of the post, I want to look at something positive about media coverage of this topic, but another quick notation about a New York Times story yesterday on the “safety” of abortions. The theme of the piece revolves around safe, safety and safeguards. The reporter promoted the piece on Twitter with the note:

Rare agreement on a sensible way to keep abortion safe: Maryland’s Path to an Accord in Abortion Fight http://nyti.ms/10OiC7m

And it’s an interesting story, in many ways. But it was shocking to read an entire article about how to make abortions “safer” without even the slightest mention of how “safe” abortions are for the unborn child. If you’re pro-life, this is abundantly clear. If you’re pro-choice, just imagine reading a story about how to make slavery safer … for the slave owner. Or imagine if it were a story about how to make discrimination against homosexuals safer … for the discriminator. It would be weird, at best. This type of question-begging is common in stories about abortion. The perspective of the human who is killed in the procedure is almost never mentioned … at all!

The New York Times hyped this story in its morning email and even included it in its “Quote of the Day” in that email:

QUOTATION OF THE DAY  “Today, having an abortion is safer than an injection of penicillin.”  DR. DAVID A. GRIMES, the former chief of abortion surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the record of a procedure that is subject to new restrictions in many states.

The first comment on the story is from a reader who quotes the quotation of the day and adds:

Except for the innocent child, that is.

The second comment is:

Once again the elephant in the room is ignored. Debating what constitutes proper regulation of abortion procedures ignores the fundamental divide on the issue: when is it acceptable to kill a child in the womb?  The answer range is from “never” to “whenever”.  Current constitutional precedent says anytime for any reason (Roe v Wade, Doe v Bolton, Casey v Planned Parenthood) since “health exceptions” include distress from being pregnant. Public opinion has vacillated since 1973 and differs based on how the question is asked, but CLEARLY it is not a “settled” public question like slavery or human trafficking or suffrage or bigotry. If you think having an abortion is like removing a tumor or taking penicillin than every regulation is onerous, political, and ideological. If you think abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent baby then regulating abortion clinics is as noxious as drafting workplace improvement regulations for 19th century slave plantations.  It presumes that ______ is either NOT evil or that it IS evil but can be done in a good way.

Even something so simple as clarifying that this story was about how to make abortions safer for the women who have them would be helpful. This media practice of dehumanizing the main victim of the abortion is not journalistically defensible. It certainly does not help media credibility. And there is so much ground to be made up.

In any case, I said we’d end on a brighter note.

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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

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So, does LA need a ‘conservative’ newspaper or not?

Time for a quick trip into tmatt’s infamous GetReligion file of guilt.

You just know that plenty of GetReligion readers are going to send us emails about an essay — in this case, from The Week — that runs with the following headline:

Why newspapers need to hire more Christians

For starters, it would help rebut conservative concerns about media bias

This essay by Matt K. Lewis opened with a reference to the recent death of one of the most talented Christians who has ever worked in the hallowed environment of The New York Times — the great John McCandlish Phillips (click here for my recent Scripps Howard column on this reporter-turned-preacher). Here’s the key transition material in the Lewis essay:

Conservatives have long lamented our East Coast secular media, charging that its worldview bias (even more than its overt political bias) skews America’s information supply. Too often, Christians feel like they’re cast as the type of fringe characters one might associate with the bar scene from Star Wars. …

This longstanding lack of diversity in the newsroom is confirmed by the Times’ McCandlish Phillips obituary, which noted that “there were [no other evangelical Christians working at the Times] when he joined the paper.”

That was unfortunate. Media outlets who want to understand America should at least have a few journalists hanging around who share — or at least, aren’t hostile to — the Christian faith.

Lewis later deals with the fact that many newsrooms do contain their share of believers, often professionals whose religious views are quite progressive/liberal who work on the opinion side of the newspaper business. That’s good, but it almost misses the point.

The key issue being discussed here is actually the need for intellectual and cultural diversity and, quite frankly, tolerance in many major newsrooms when it comes to traditional forms of major religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here, once again, is a key passage from the highly symbolic — especially in light of future events (hello Bill Keller) — 2005 self-study at The New York Times entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust.”

Our paper’s commitment to a diversity of gender, race and ethnicity is nonnegotiable. We should pursue the same diversity in other dimensions of life, and for the same reason — to ensure that a broad range of viewpoints is at the table when we decide what to write about and how to present it. The executive editor should assign this goal to everyone who has a hand in recruiting.

We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar). …

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

Now, let me stress that longtime GetReligion readers will know that I think, based on my experiences in mainstream newsrooms, that there are fine reporters doing accurate, balanced reporting on religious and cultural issues who are not believers of any kind. That’s not the point of the Times review material. The point is that culturally and intellectually diverse newsrooms do a better job covering modern America than newsrooms that are not as diverse.

At the same time, on the issue of Christians in the newsroom, my position is the same as that of Phillips. Bias issues exist, but it would also help if there were more religious believers who had the skills and the guts to work in elite newsrooms, which are not environments that embrace those with thin skins. We are dealing, as I have said many times, with a blind spot that has two sides. All too often, mainstream journalists do not respect the valid, First Amendment role that religious liberty plays in American life. At the same time, far too many religious believers do not respect the valid, First Amendment role played by the press.

Now, I said all of that to note this recent article at The Daily Beast about the potential sale of The Los Angeles Times to everybody’s favorite billionaire libertarian brothers, David and Charles Koch. I’m talking about the one that ran under the headline, “Could There Be A Conservative LA Times?

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Flash! Cardinal says all people created in God’s image

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In a way, the existence of the short New York Times story that ran with this headline, “Dolan Says the Catholic Church Should Be More Welcoming to Gay People,” is simply a matter of journalistic math.

Fact 1: Cardinal Timothy Dolan is the Catholic shepherd of New York and the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops.

Fact 2: Dolan is articulate and, at times, even witty. He keeps showing up on television and in highly public places. He is hard to ignore.

Fact 3: In this case, he directly addressed the single most important subject on Planet Earth, from the perspective of the doctrines and worldview of this newspaper’s own college of editorial cardinals.

Add these factors together and, one way or another, you are going to get a news story — for better or for worse.

Now, from the point of view of the Times (classic Bill Keller faith statement here, in essay called “Is the Pope Catholic?“), Catholicism is in a state of crisis caused by its irrational commitment to ancient doctrines carved into dogma in the ages before Woodstock. Thus, the lede:

On Easter Sunday, weeks after he helped elect a new pope for a church struggling with declining numbers and controversy over social issues, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said that the Roman Catholic Church could be more welcoming of gay men and lesbians despite opposing same-sex marriage.

In recorded interviews with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week” and Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” on CBS, Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York and one of the leading voices of the Catholic Church in the United States, did not suggest any changes in church teaching. He defined marriage as “one man, one woman, forever, to bring about new life,” but, he told Mr. Stephanopoulos, “we’ve got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people.”

Actually, that second paragraph is pretty good and stresses the main point that needed to be made: Dolan said absolutely nothing new. The heart of what he said is found here:

Speaking just days after the Supreme Court heard arguments in two same-sex marriage cases, Mr. Stephanopoulos asked Cardinal Dolan what he could say to gay men and lesbians who felt excluded from the church.

“Well, the first thing I’d say to them is: ‘I love you, too. And God loves you. And you are made in God’s image and likeness. And — and we — we want your happiness. But — and you’re entitled to friendship,’ ” Cardinal Dolan said. “But we also know that God has told us that the way to happiness, that — especially when it comes to sexual love — that is intended only for a man and woman in marriage, where children can come about naturally.”

So, try to find the glaring news hook in that.

Actually, if the Times wanted to chase an interesting story, there is one linked to that. It could explore the writings and work of gay and lesbian Catholics who actually support the teachings of their church (sample here). That would be a new point of view for the world’s most powerful newspaper and, trust me, many of the points made in such a story would make the Catholic cultural right as uncomfortable as the usual suspects on the Catholic left.

However, the biggest stretch in this short story came near the end.

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Media fallibility on papal infallibility

YouTube Preview ImageLast week in my post “Turkson wouldn’t be first African pope,” I quoted from an humorous guide for journalists covering the election. The last tip:

  • Yes, the next Pope will be a man and a Catholic.

So obvious that it was barely funny, right? And yet … you can view here New York magazine contributing editor Chris Smith suggest on an MSNBC panel that the next pope be … Sonia Sotomayor. The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne humbly notes that the Holy Spirit is running behind him — see, Dionne is ready for a female pope.

These are both instances of opinion journalists offering their opinions. We’re more interested in straight journalists writing up the news. But I still think these opinions are quite telling. And sometimes the straight news guys go into the more transparent opinion business and reveal what you probably suspected knew all along. Speaking of, the New York Times‘ former executive editor Bill Keller — who describes himself as a “collapsed Catholic” (get it?) — has some advice for the Roman Catholic Church. It begins:

Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.

Because when you want business advice, you get it from the folks who are running the New York Times, amiright? I mean, God bless ‘em but they are seriously not the group to be offering business advice. Ever.

Anyway, let’s move on to the news pages. This piece, which also ran in the New York Times, is headlined “When a Pope Retires, Is He Still Infallible?” I was alerted to this piece via Twitter, where various people were mocking it relentlessly. It’s not a piece about how people who are uninformed or confused about the Catholic teaching on infallibility view what’s about to happen. No, it’s an earnest look at the topic, as if it’s a totally legitimate idea. And it somehow rounds up people who agree that this is a very tough question. The second paragraph:

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