NYTimes reverts to using vague labels in Texas science war

It’s time for a GetReligion post linked to press coverage of biology, textbooks, God and Texas. Before I jump into the fine details, I’d like to make two observations.

First of all, since my goal is to discuss a story in The New York Times, it is important to note that stories about this topic fall under former editor Bill Keller’s proclamation that the world’s most powerful newspaper no longer feels obligated to offer balanced, accurate coverage of voices on both sides of moral, cultural and religious issues. You may recall that, two years ago, Keller was asked if his newsroom slanted news to the left.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.”

Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: “You may not be in the right state for that.” …

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.”

My second preliminary statement is this: I’ve been following press coverage of debates about religion and science for 40 years and my primary journalistic observation remains the same. I think the committee that produces the Associated Press Stylebook needs to urge mainstream journalists to be more careful when using the words “evolution” and “creationism.” Each of those terms has a half dozen or so finely tuned definitions, depending on who is using them at any given moment.

For example, a person who accepts a creation narrative with a “young earth” and a timeline with seven 24-hour days will certainly embrace the creationist label. But what about a person who believes that creation unfolded over billions of years, involved slow change over time, a common tree of descent for species and ages of micro-evolutionary change?

Similar things happen with the term evolution, which as the Blessed Pope John Paul II once observed, is best discussed in terms of different schools of evolutionary thought, some of which are compatible with Christian faith and some of which are not (addressing those who believe that man was the product of a process that did not have Him in mind).

The word “evolutionist” certainly applies to someone who believes life emerged from a natural, materialistic, random process that was without design or purpose. But what about someone who accepts that theory on the biological front, but believes that there is scientific evidence that our universe was finely tuned to produce life? What about someone who says that creation contains evidence best thought of as the signature of its creator (Carl Sagan, for example). What about people who insist they are doctrinaire Darwinists, but still see cracks in the old neo-Darwinian creeds? Are “theistic evolutionists” really believers in “evolution” in the eyes of the truly secular academic powers that be? And so forth and so on.

This brings us to the recent Times piece about the ongoing textbook battles in the Lone Star state.

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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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At WPost, even local abortion crime isn’t newsworthy

On May 25, I tweeted out the image at the top of this post with the note “WaPo story about 12 of 16 surgical abortion clinics in MD having a variety of failures gets this headline?”

The headline was:

Md. abortion clinic lapses unrelated to patient death

The online headline might as well have been “nothing to see here, please move along, we’re covering this just so we can say we did” but was slightly better:

Md: ‘No deficiencies’ found in care of woman who died after abortion

If you did read the story, though, you learned that, like I said, 12 of 16 surgical abortion clinics in MD (aka 75%) had deficiencies. Four had been shut down. And apparently death after an abortion is something that just happens sometimes. If that’s true, I’d sure like a heck of a lot more incendiary headline than what the WashPost offered above. In a way, being told an abortion-related death is no big deal is more interesting than being told it is. Unless you’re a newspaper these days.

You might remember that the Washington Post‘s two earlier efforts at coverage of that death were, no joke, 1) multiple stories about how pro-lifers had raised awareness about the case, to their shame and 2) that her death was a “complication of childbirth.” Don’t believe me? Check out the posts “Mainstream media defense of abortion never rests” and “Water sipping and pro-life activism; a tale of media coverage.”

So the reporter just really downplays what could be written up in the more normal journalistic style. And this stuff happens so much and so frequently with coverage of a certain set of topics. Which topics? As tmatt wrote about that Bill Keller speech a few months back, social issues linked to religion:

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.”

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America’s hot-button social issues? 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.

The Post has begun speaking publicly about difficulties its staff has with this same type of coverage but I don’t think anyone would accuse them of trying to correct those problems.

Which brings us to an AP story I read in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined “4 Md. abortion clinics shut down, 3 docs suspended.” It begins:

WASHINGTON — Four affiliated abortion clinics in Maryland have been shut down and three doctors have had their licenses suspended after a patient died at one clinic and regulators found lax procedures at all four, according to documents filed online by two regulatory agencies.

The clinics in Baltimore, Cheverly, Frederick and Silver Spring were initially shut down in March. They were later allowed to reopen, but they were shut down again in early May after state regulators received a complaint about a patient who was given a drug used to induce abortions without a doctor present, according to documents posted online by the state Office of Health Care Quality, which regulates the clinics and ordered them to close.

The patient died following an abortion at the Baltimore clinic, regulators said in the documents. After undergoing the procedure on Feb. 13, the awake but “still very drowsy” woman was left in the care of an unlicensed medical assistant, during which time she experienced cardiopulmonary arrest.

Neither the doctor who had performed the abortion, Iris Dominy, nor the assistant used an automated external defibrillator on the patient, although Dominy attempted CPR, the regulators said. The woman died later at a hospital. A week later, regulators found that the defibrillator machine didn’t work, and the clinic employees hadn’t been trained on how to use it.

Dominy is one of the three doctors whose licenses were suspended, according to separate documents posted on the Web by the Maryland Board of Physicians.

Whoa whoa whoa!

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Pod people: Talking personal history on the religion beat

Granted, 25 years is a rather long time, especially in the Internet age.

Nevertheless, I was taken a bit off guard this week when Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilkin asked me for whatever “historical perspective” I had gained on religion and the news during my 25 years writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard Newspaper. We had planned to do a “Crossroads” podcast about the column’s anniversary a bit earlier, but then the Divine Ms. M.Z. Hemingway and the whole Dr. Kermit Gosnell affair took control of cyberspace. What can you do?

So we got around to talking about that 25th anniversary column — click here to read it — a bit late.

Still, a “historical perspective”? Well, yes, I am starting to take on a bit of a Grampa Walton look these days, which cannot be helped. I mean, time passes. But the wording of Todd’s question had me cracking up right from the get-go.

I won’t bore readers with a long summary of the podcast (listen to it, please), but I will make note that the key to our discussion is that a quarter of a century is a long enough time that the column (a) predates the World Wide Web and (b) began during the era before the real crash in advertising revenue at the nation’s top 25 or so newspaper markets.

Why does that matter? That means the column was founded back in the days when there were quite a few more healthy, regional and big-city newspapers that had full-time professionals working on beats such as fine arts, science, movies, television and even religion. In fact, back in the ’90s, it was quite easy to see that religion-writing was on an upswing.

The number of professionals on the beat was higher, there for a few short years. NPR put a quality professional on the beat. And, in the world of network television, the late Peter Jennings was even starting to talk sense. Consider this material near the top of a 1996 Scripps column:

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On Sarah Kliff’s mea culpa on Gosnell (a national story)

If you have been on Twitter in the past week or so, you probably know that our own M.Z. Hemingway recently wrote a post that noted:

… Since tmatt has me reading the Washington Post every day, to look at how the paper’s health policy reporter was covering Gosnell. I have critiqued many of her stories on the Susan G. Komen Foundation (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Sandra Fluke controversy (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Todd Akin controversy (you know where this is going). In fact, a site search for that reporter — who is named Sarah Kliff — and stories Akin and Fluke and Komen — yields more than 80 hits. Guess how many stories she’s done on this abortionist’s mass murder trial.

Did you guess zero? You’d be right.

So I asked her about it. Here’s her response:

Hi Molly — I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention.

Yes. She really, really, really said that.

Well, about 120,000 or so social media interactions later, this journalistic discussion achieved that state that I think young people (as opposed to old people like me) call “going viral.” I think that’s the term. Did I get it right?

A whole lot of water has passed under the bridge since late last week and I have asked Mollie to continue to chart the debates with, as always, our emphasis focusing on people who are trying to promote accurate, balanced coverage of the religious, moral, cultural and scientific issues linked to this trial. In other words, we think the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell is a big, national news story and it really doesn’t matter where one stands on abortion rights, or how often one does or does not go to church, to realize that.

If you have not read it already, and you have a strong stomach, let me recommend in particular the Conor Friedersdorf piece in The Atlantic online that ran with this blast of a two-decker headline:

Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Trial Should Be a Front-Page Story

The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy.

That piece ended with this journalistic shot over the bow:

To sum up, this story has numerous elements any one of which would normally make it a major story. And setting aside conventions, which are flawed, this ought to be a big story on the merits.

The news value is undeniable.

Why isn’t it being covered more? I’ve got my theories. But rather than offer them at the end of an already lengthy item, I’d like to survey some of the editors and writers making coverage decisions.

Now, Friedersdorf is back with that promised follow-up piece that is simply too complex to discuss in this context, as suggested in his similarly massive headline:

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Is Politico as partisan as The Weekly Standard?

Today is Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s last day. You can read his memo to staff here.

To mark it, I’m ruminating on a Twitter exchange I happened across last night. So telling. It begins with John McCormack, a reporter for The Weekly Standard, writing:

Politico article on abortion issue includes two quotes–one from Planned Parenthood and one, for balance, from ACLU

It’s a particularly bad example of what we see on abortion coverage every day, as well as coverage of many other hot-button issues commonly found on beats linked to religion and politics. Even though this is only six paragraphs long, it’s a bad example.

But what I found interesting was the response from Andrew Kaczynski, a reporter for the supposedly mainstream Buzzfeed:

Lot of balance in those Weekly Standard Chuck Hagel stories.

This is a reference to The Weekly Standard‘s work opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. But the Standard (where my better half works) is an avowedly conservative opinion journal. It’s whole purpose is to spread adoption of a particular set of conservative values.

Do you see the problem here?

BuzzFeed and Politico (and the Washington Post, and countless other media outlets) present themselves as mainstream media outlets doing straight news. I’ll let Twitter do my work for me:

@QuinHillyer Weekly Standard is an opinion journal. Politico claims to be straight news. Big difference in what’s expected

@McCormackJohn Well, at least they’re more balanced than Buzzfeed’s articles on gay marriage. Also: We don’t pretend we’re not ideological.

@IMAO_ He’s very clearly saying that Politico is as partisan as the Weekly Standard.

We’ve been talking about this a lot recently, because it’s a major change in the stated objectives of mainstream media. This is also a topic closely linked to media-bias studies about religion news.

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Bill Keller, et al, openly confess that “error has no rights”

As the debates rage on about you know whatWashington. Post. Ombudsman. Bias. Column. — I would like to jump in remind faithful GetReligion readers of an earlier episode in this post-journalism drama. I’ll also share another link or two pointing toward pieces in which journalists are discussing some of the prickly issues in the Patrick Pexton piece.

But first, let’s back up to the earlier event (video here) in Austin, Texas, that still has me depressed, the one during which Bill Keller, days after stepping down (or is that abdicating) as New York Times editor, essentially said that there are different journalistic rules for covering social issues and religion, as opposed to politics and real news. For those who have forgotten his remarks, here is a flashback care of a column I wrote for Scripps Howard:

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, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. … 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 are some of the “social values” issues that have popped up in the news every now and then since, oh, 1973 or thereabouts? That would be any issue in public life linked to sex, salvation, marriage, abortion, parenting, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other things that, in the United States, tend to get linked to religion. Did I miss anything major in that list?

None of those issues, of course, have anything to do with politics or life in the public square. So how, precisely, does a newspaper such as the Times cover political life in America in a balanced way without being able to be accurate and fair in its coverage of opposing voices in debates about religious and social issues?

Yes, the same question would apply to The Washington Post.

Let the journalistic debates continue, since the only thing that is at stake is the future of what historians would call the American Model of the Press.

Meanwhile, over at CNN.com, former Post media-beat reporter Howard Kurtz has weighed in on Pexton’s piece, and related issues. He notes, for example, what happened when the newspaper in Laurel, Miss., covered a particularly moving same-sex union rite, the first ever in that Bible Belt county.

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