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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Red-state American in her natural habitat

I gotta admit: Just a few sentences into this Washington Post feature on post-election Red America and I was already worried.

I just knew that this was going to be one of those sarcastic, elite-reporter-gets-to-know-ignorant-people-in-the-sticks kind of stories (i.e., see the pretty zoo animals with “Mitt Romney” campaign buttons):

HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — She arrived early to take apart the campaign office piece by piece, just as she felt so many other things about her life were being dismantled. Beth Cox wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt, a cross around her neck and fresh eyeliner, even though she had been crying on and off and knew her makeup was likely to run. A day after the election, she tuned the radio to Glenn Beck and began pulling posters and American flags off the wall.

Her calendar read “Victory Day!!” and she had planned to celebrate in the office by hosting a dance party and selling Romney souvenirs. But instead she was packing those souvenirs into boxes, which would be donated to a charity that sent clothes to South America. Instead a moving company was en route to close down the office in the next 48 hours, and her friends were calling every few minutes to see how she was doing.

“I will be okay,” she told one caller. “I just don’t think we will be okay.”

Next comes the nut graf:

Here in the heart of Red America, Cox and many others spent last week grieving not only for themselves and their candidate but also for a country they now believe has gone wildly off track. The days after Barack Obama’s reelection gave birth to a saying in Central Tennessee: Once was a slip, but twice is a sign.

(An aside before we move on: Central Tennessee? Is there such a place outside of a Beltway newspaper page? Folks familiar at all with Tennessee know that it has three grand divisions: East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.)

As I kept reading, I kept seeing signposts indicating a strong religion angle to this 1,800-word, front-page feature. “Values and beliefs” were referenced. The Romney supporter was described as “prayerful.” Her causes were “at the heart of her faith.” She counseled young married families “at church.”

I started marking up my printout of the story, prepared to point out the holy ghosts.

But then something strange happened: I actually began to like the story — and the flair with which the writer revealed important details all along the way. My initial concern that this would be a cardboard-cutout portrayal of a mindless social conservative mostly disappeared. Instead, the focus on a single voter allowed the writer adequate space to intertwine nuggets of nuance:

She blamed some of the divisiveness on Republicans. The party had gotten “way too white,” she said, and she hoped it would never again run a presidential ticket without including a woman or a minority. The tea party was an extremist movement that needed to be “neutralized,” she said, and Romney’s campaign had suffered irreparable damage when high-profile Republicans spoke about “crazy immigration talk and legitimate rape.”

But many other aspects of the division seemed fundamental and harder to solve. There was the America of increased secularism that legalized marijuana. And there was her America, where her two teenage daughters are not allowed to read “Harry Potter” or “Twilight,” and where one of them wrote in a school paper: “God is the center and the main foundation of my family.”

There was the America of gay marriage and the America of her Southern Baptist church, where 7,000 came to listen on Sundays, and where church literature described marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman.”

That reference to church literature strikes me as a bit awkward because I suspect that the church would attribute that belief to a different source.

Later in the story, the reporter follows the woman to a small-group prayer meeting at the church and backs out of the way (letting the dialogue itself tell the story):

“The world will tell you to be so many things,” she advised them, and on this night she talked to them about the importance of preserving life, the sanctity of marriage, the advantages of raising children at home and the importance of “relying on family, and on your core values, and not on the government.”

“It’s not an easy road to be a Christian, and if it was, everybody would be on it,” she said. She passed out blank white note cards and asked each woman to write down a worry to surrender to God. Then, before closing, she asked what they wanted to pray for.

“Our president,” said one, and the women in the group nodded.

“Our values,” said another.

“All people in our country who are lost.”

“The soul of America.”

“Amen,” Cox said.

This is not a perfect narrative, and some questions go unanswered (such as the name of the church and the specific role of Cox’s vaguely referenced pastor husband).

But all in all, this piece converted me. Mark me down as a believer in this particular Post story.

Broken heart image via Shutterstock


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