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

YouTube Preview Image

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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Missing voices in coverage of the National Cathedral rites

For some reason or another, quite a few folks who read this here weblog want to know what I, and the other GetReligionistas, think of the decision by leaders of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul — better known as Washington National Cathedral — to officially begin performing same-sex union rites.

Well, for starters, that’s a question about an event in the news, not a question about mainstream-media coverage of an event in the news. So that really isn’t a GetReligion question.

Personally, I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, so I don’t have a horse in that race. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that modern Protestant bodies who hold votes to decide major doctrines are free to do whatever they want to do. However, various camps within the 600,000 or so Episcopalians who continue to worship in their local parishes on a regular basis will, and should, care deeply about this development. Press coverage should make note of that.

However, does this liturgical decision really surprise anyone? The trends in the Episcopal Church establishment have been steady for a decade or two. Episcopal clergy here in DC Beltway-land have been performing forms of same-sex union rites for three decades.

Now, a national rite has been approved and the contents are there for all to see. It would be a much bigger story if this symbolic cathedral declined to use these rites.

One longtime GetReligion reader did raise another interesting question, one that could be a hook for valid journalistic coverage. She wrote:

A friend told me yesterday that it’s irritating to keep reading about the National Cathedral in the news — as if that Episcopalian church was really the official US cathedral. So I was checking it out and see that the Washington National Cathedral is the church’s official name and it claims “it is called to serve as the spiritual home for the nation.” …

In spite of the … provision that we have no established church, why does the press continue to treat the Episcopal Cathedral in DC as if it is the official US religious center for political events? … Why is this situation not seen as a church-state difficulty by the press?

It is certainly true that, in terms of history, Episcopalians have, well, outperformed their numbers when it comes to having an impact on national news and American history. At this point, I think few would challenge a statement that National Cathedral is America’s most important liberal Protestant sanctuary. But, in terms of numbers and demographics, does that make it the “spiritual home for the nation”?

That might be a hook for an interesting story, but it really isn’t the key issue in this story about same-sex marriage.

When I started reading the coverage, I wanted to know if the teams in our major newsrooms realized that this symbolic action was a typical Episcopal-Anglican story, one with implications at the local, national and global levels. I also wondered if journalists would consider the ecumenical impact of this decision, in terms of the cathedral’s relationships with larger bodies of American believers — such as Catholics, evangelicals, charismatics, etc. Who knows, there was even a chance that journalists might interview one or two important religious leaders who opposed this action.

Hey, it could happen.

But don’t hold your breath.

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Shocker! Liberal clergy back gay rites! (updated)

What we have here is a totally predictable story, to an almost stunning degree. It’s almost a non-story, from the get go.

What has me confused, however, is whether or not The New York Times crew realizes that it is publishing a totally predictable story, a story in which there is not a single new or unpredictable element.

You see, there are quite a few signs in the story that the Times folks know that there is little or nothing new in this piece. Then, at other times, the world’s openly liberal newspaper of record — especially on religious and moral issues, saith former editor Bill Keller — seems to think that this story is important.

The key is the story’s Something Really Big Has Happened Lede, which only sounds big because the newspaper’s editors chose to omit a crucial fact.

More than 250 religious leaders in Illinois have signed an open letter in support of same-sex marriage, which the legislature is likely to take up in January.

“We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all,” the leaders wrote in the letter, which was released Sunday. “Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.

“There can be no justification,” they continued, “for the law treating people differently on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This is not the first time members of the clergy have endorsed same-sex marriage, but the public nature of the letter and the number of signatures made it an especially strong statement.

Now let me be clear: This is a story. Years ago, it would have been an important one.

What I am arguing is that at this point it is a totally predictable story, for reasons that — to their credit — the Times persons make little effort to hide. The story notes, for example that “many” of the Christian and Jewish leaders who signed this liberal statement noted that “they had long supported same-sex marriage.”

So what does the lede fail to mention? This story does not cite a single clergyperson who, by signing this statement, was changing her or his position on this issue. In fact, the story does not list a single clergyperson whose stance represents a violation of her or his denomination’s stance on the moral status of sex outside of marriage.

In other words: Where is the news?

By the way, I would feel precisely the same about a Times story reporting that a large flock of Catholic, Orthodox, Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon and evangelical Protestant clergy had produced a statement documenting their opposition to same-sex marriage. The difference, of course, is that the Times would not print that story and certainly would not open that alleged news report with a Something Really Big Has Happened Lede.

Note the denominations that are backing this liberal proclamation:

“It’s not a religious right — it’s a civil right,” said the Rev. Kevin E. Tindell, a United Church of Christ minister at New Dimensions Chicago. “It’s a matter of justice, and so as a Christian, as a citizen, I feel that it’s my duty.” Mr. Tindell, who is gay, is raising three children with his partner of 17 years.

The Rev. Kim L. Beckmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who lives in the Chicago area, said she was drawn into the movement “as my gay and lesbian parishioners were welcomed into our congregation.”

“I have participated in blessings of these unions for longer than we’ve even been talking about marriage,” she said. “I’m thrilled to take this step.” …

The Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chicago said it was a way for religious leaders to say, “I’m a faithful Christian or a Jew or Muslim, and I think that marriage equality is important.”

“It doesn’t have to be a faith issue,” she said. “We understand our Scripture in a different way.”

Now, that quote from the female Episcopal priest raises an interesting question: Did any mainstream Muslim leaders actually sign this letter? Did any Muslims sign the letter, period?

The logical thing to do is to look online and fine the list. However, at the moment, all I can find is news reports about the letter, many of which — unlike the Times story — note another predictable element of this development, which is that most of the women and men who signed this statement are from the Chicago area.

I am several pages into a logical online search and I can’t find the actual list. Surely it is online? Or, perhaps, was the story in the Times meant to serve as the official announcement?

Help me find the list, please. Once we have found it, we can search the list for (a) Muslims, (b) Catholics who are not liberal nuns, (c) Orthodox Jews, (d) evangelical Protestants who are employed by major evangelical denominations, (e) Mormons linked to major Mormon organizations, (f) Anglicans who are not part of The Episcopal Church, etc., etc. In other words, let’s search the list for surprising names, the kinds of signatures that would represent a truly newsworthy development.

Again let me stress: We are talking about a journalism issue here, exactly the same journalism issue that would be raised, let’s say, by a Fox News report trumpeting an anti-gay-marriage statement released by a long list of religious leaders who are part of religious groups that support their various traditions’ ancient doctrines on sex and marriage. That statement wouldn’t be big news either.

UPDATE: Thank you to reader Joyce Garcia. Here’s the link to a .pdf of the list. The list is pretty much what I expected, including its reference to an “Orthodox” parish — a St. Thomas Mission that is actually part of a liberal splinter group. Check the list. Check it twice.

Boundaries on reporting on religion and politics

Yesterday I told you about the pre-conference to the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference being held over the next few days here in the Washington, D.C. area.

Because the speakers were all situated on one side of the aisle, more or less, I mentioned that the pre-conference is organized independently of RNA.

But the best panel was this one:

What Should the Boundaries Be on Reporting on Religion and Presidential Politics: Bill Keller, The New York Times; Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post; David Campbell, the University of Notre Dame; Amy Sullivan, writer and editor; Moderator: Professor Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary

The Huffington Post had a nice write-up of the discussion. Each participant gave their opening remarks. Sullivan talked about how reporters need to discuss religion as a means to understanding how elected officials might govern. Campbell said we should ask candidates about religion “only to the extent it has a plausible connection to what an elected official would do in office” instead of covering candidates’ faith solely to make them seem odd or exotic.

On the other side of the debate, Keller defended his widely-discussed (and widely dissed) piece arguing that Republican primary candidates should get tough questions about their views on interpreting Scripture (and various other things). So I guess the piece wasn’t satire, as I had argued at the time (See my “Bill Keller’s Modest Proposal“). Henneberger also argued in favor of exploring any religion angle that comes to mind.

I found myself agreeing with all of them (I have that problem sometimes). But it seemed to me that the two sides could be reconciled. It seemed Sullivan and Campbell — and, if I’m reading at least a portion of the gathered reporters correctly — simply wanted good faith efforts at understanding religious influences and the role religion plays in candidates’ political goals. Keller argued that it’s the politician’s job to decide if he is going to answer a question or not and that reporters shouldn’t unduly limit themselves in where they probe.

I pointed out (the peanut gallery got to ask questions) that part of the reason why Keller’s piece went over like a lead balloon is because he had incorrectly said that Rick Santorum — a rather well-known Roman Catholic — was part of a “fervid subset of evangelical Christianity”and that he’d confused literalism and inerrancy and had mis-stated what Catholics believe about Communion. Perhaps, I asked, newsrooms could do something to make sure religious questions are more informed? Liz Tenety at the Washington Post asked about how hostility to religious views in newsrooms affects trust with readers and what can be done about it.

Keller didn’t quite manage to answer my question, although he noted he’d had to correct the column. Anyway, I thought the discussion interesting none-the-less.

What do you think are the boundaries for reporting on religion and politics? My own approach is a bit of a mix of all four panelists. Like Keller, I think boundaries are the wrong way to look at this. Like Henneberger, I just have a blast discussing religion wherever that might lead. Like Campbell, I don’t think society is helped by having reporters highlight religion simply to make it seem weird. And I agreed with most of what Sullivan said (she had some great comments on what the media miss when they cover religion stories) and was favorable to her idea that the religion questions of political reporters should meet a basic test of whether or not the answer will help news consumers learn about how the candidate will govern.

What are your thoughts on the debate?

Boundaries image via Shutterstock.

Hundreds of Godbeat journalists hit the Beltway

The Religion Newswriters Association annual conference is being held over the next few days here in the Washington, D.C. area. The entire GetReligion team will be in town (even the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, the co-founder of this operation) to talk shop and most of us will be around for at least some portion of the three-day RNA run.

For some of us (OK, me) it’s a first-time event. Others are old timers at this conference.

Suffice it to say lots of laptops will be fired up for this one. Bloggers will blog, tweeters will tweet.

I’ll be hitting some of the pre-conference panels today, which include the following topics and speakers:

What Should the Boundaries Be on Reporting on Religion and Presidential Politics: Bill Keller, The New York Times; Melissa Rogers, Wake Forest Divinity School; David Campbell, the University of Notre Dame; Amy Sullivan, writer and editor; Moderator: Professor Shaun Casey, Wesley Theological Seminary

Religious Freedom and the Presidential Election: Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter; Joanna Brooks, scholar and author; Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post; Jerome Copulsky, Prof. American University; Moderator: Professor Michael Kessler, Georgetown University

Overview of Religion in the Election of 2012: Sally Steenland, Center for American Progress; Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., Georgetown University; Valerie Cooper, University of Virginia; Arsalan Iftikhar, Editor, The Muslim Guy; Moderator: David McAllister Wilson, Wesley Theological Seminary

Bill Keller! Yes, the former New York Times head man.

The pre-conference “Faith & Politics” is, I believe, organized independently of the Religion Newswriters Association by Wesley Theological Seminary, in case you were wondering about their speaker selection or topic areas.

Anyway, we’ll be pretty busy over the next couple of days seeing old friends and meeting new ones and learning from the various speakers that have been brought together. We will all do our best to update you on the most interesting panel discussions and speakers and other events that happen.


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