Jake Tapper on opinion journalism masquerading as news

I’m a longtime fan of Jake Tapper of CNN, and formerly of ABC News. I like that he asks tough but reasonable questions of politicians, regardless of which party they’re in. I like that he reports and presents the news without his opinion. I like that he’s not defensive when someone critiques his work.

Defensiveness is something we all suffer from, but we journalists seem to have it worse than most. But Tapper, being a high profile reporter, gets a lot of criticism. Sometimes he responds to it by agreeing with the critique and modifying his wording or approach. Sometimes he explains why he disagrees with the critique. He engages with readers and he cares about getting good stories. I only wish we had more journalists of his type.

You can see examples of how GetReligion has written about his work and his response to criticism here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, herehere, here, here, and here. What’s really striking about the frequency with which we write about his journalism is that he’s not a reporter of religion but of politics. Almost all of the reporters we praise that frequently are religion reporters. Most of our criticism is probably levied at political reporters. He clearly has an interest in the role religion plays in politics, and that interest has paid off with solid stories and a devoted following among various news consumers.

He gave a brief interview to Robin Rose Parker at the Washington Post Magazine. I thought it worth noting. A few of his thoughts:

Most interviews that I do are not super aggressive. They can’t be, and they shouldn’t be; that would get pretty tiresome. So when there’s an interview that’s tough or a question that’s tough, it’s something that raises eyebrows. It’s not easy to do that in the White House briefing room, at a press conference. That’s never easy. It’s not fun. Because as humans we are built to try to avoid conflict. Society constantly looks down its nose at conflict, even if the media doesn’t. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. It’s absolutely nerve-racking. It’s much easier to be chummy with people in power. It’s much easier to ask softball questions, to not upset the apple cart. And that’s why most people, including me, don’t spend all of their time asking tough questions. But there are times when they are called for, and I think definitely they’re needed in politics, in political journalism.

He talks about how he appreciates those politicians that rise to the challenge of answering tough questions as well as those that understand it’s his job to ask those questions. I particularly liked his concluding thoughts:

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Hey, you put your opinion in my news!

One of the many products offered by Religion News Service is its daily round-up of news items, a chatty summary that is almost always infused with opinion. Here’s an example from earlier this month:

The Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit civil liberties group, posted on its website last week that it had discovered that six people chosen to review biology textbooks for the state had ties to creationism. That was later amended to four. Still.

Still … what? I mean, I have no idea how the much abused term “creationism” is being defined in this coverage of a biology textbook writing controversy, but I do believe God created the heavens and the earth. Was this RNS item an attack on religious adherents like me? It seemed oddly hostile.

Last month the round-up included this bit:

Yesterday we wrote in this space about how two of our guest commentators — Barry Lynn and G. Welton Gaddy — did not mince words when decrying the assertion that there is a war against Christians in the military. But the Rev. Tom Ehrich has set the bar for higher  today — adding a healthy dose of outrage to his candor. His column begins:

It is tragic to watch contemptuous right-wingers declaring war on America.

Not that everyone doesn’t want to parse the fine points of distinction between the views of Barry Lynn and C. Welton Gaddy, much less between them and the Rev. Tom Ehrich, but is there room for another perspective in the opposite direction? Or as one observer asked:

Any chance for coverage of views on the other side, on the equal access side?

That’s not the only religion angle in play. I wrote a fairly middle-of-the-road take on evangelism in the military for the Wall Street Journal recently but there are views far to the other side of those featured by RNS.

And then today there was a tweet from RNS that read:

#RowanWilliams tells #Christians in the West who feel persecuted to “grow up.” ‘Bout time someone said it. http://ow.ly/nZo4h

With the caveat that I’d gotten in a bit of a dust-up with the great Alan Jacobs on just this issue this morning (because I sometimes forget, in the absence of coffee, to avoid battles with people far wiser than I could every hope to be), this ” ’bout time” sneering left a bad taste in my mouth.

I wrote: “Wow. Disdain much?”

Ted Olsen of Christianity Today responded “Gotta agree with Mollie. I don’t quite get RNS’s move toward mixing opinion and reporting. Esp. odd post-RNA merger.” And our own Bobby added, “With its snarky daily roundups and tweets, @RNS does seem increasingly willing to voice its opinion. Is this on purpose?”

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