May 15, 2014

In light of the latest newsroom drama at The New York Times, let’s pause and reflect once again on why it matters so much who leads America’s most influential news institution.

I know that it only seems like yesterday that editor Jill Abramson was the new boss and we were trying to gauge how that would change the whole theology of journalism at the Times, so soon after the fascinatingly candid (you knew this was coming) remarks on religion, culture and the press by former editor Bill Keller. More on that in a minute.

Now Abramson is out and her top deputy has taken the top chair. Dean Baquet — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former editor of The Los Angeles Times — now serves as another historic figure in the newspaper’s history, as it’s first African-American executive editor. In a press release (questions were apparently not welcomed in this newsroom session), he remarked:

“It is an honor to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that is actually better than it was a generation ago, one that approaches the world with wonder and ambition every day,” he said in a news release.

The Times is certainly better at some things than it used to be, especially in multi-platform journalism. However, many will still debate whether it remains a traditional newspaper or has evolved, on many subjects, into a neo-European advocacy publication.

Some of the best quotes on this matter have, ironically, been printed in the Times — under the bylines of various public editors. I still think Arthur S. Brisbane’s 2012 farewell included some of the best material, from a GetReligion point of view:

I also noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds — a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Does some of that sound familiar?

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February 25, 2013

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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July 8, 2014

Just the other day, I heard a long-time GetReligion reader use a very interesting new journalism term — “Kellerism.”

Wait for it, faithful readers. Let’s walk through this with newcomers to the site. What, pray tell, are the key beliefs in the journalistic philosophy that is “Kellerism”?

Yes, this is another reference to the pronouncements of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 remarks (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Here, once again, is a chunk of an “On Religion” column I wrote about that event, when the newly retired Keller was asked if — that old question — the Times is a “liberal newspaper.”

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

Keller continued: “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 here is first core “Kellerism” doctrine: There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine is related to that and can be glimpsed near the end of Keller’s response (.pdf here) to the famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” self-study of the Times, during troubled ethical times in 2005. The key is that Keller insisted that he was committed to diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc. However, he was silent or gently critical when addressing the study’s calls for improved cultural and intellectual diversity. The Times was diverse enough, it appears, on those counts.

Yes, criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of traditional religious believers was raised as a concern by the committee that wrote the report.

So why bring up this new term in a post topped with a photo of The Boston Globe building?

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July 23, 2014

Several years ago, your GetReligionistas created a new item in our archives list of news “categories.” As faithful readers know, we focus on hard-news material produced by mainstream news organizations. The only time that we write about editorial columns, op-ed pieces, academic essays or the like is when they focus directly on issues in our home turf — religion-beat news.

However, every now and then people would send us URLs for items published by religious wire services, denominational magazines or non-profit sources linked to religious causes that — from their point of view — focused on a valid news story that wasn’t getting mainstream-press ink. After pondering this dilemma for a while, we began using a “Got news?” headline slug and created a new category.

Now it’s time for another category, one that we have been pondering for quite some time. The headline slug is, as you see above, “What is this?” We seriously considered “WTF?” but decided that didn’t mesh well with the sober tone that we strive to maintain around here. I mean, other than Jim Davis and his wild puns, and Father George Conger and his off-beat illustrations, and … You get the point.

So what is the point of this new category? What is this new niche?

One of our main goals, here at GetReligion, is to defend the basic values of what historians have long called the “American” model of the press, with its commitment to accuracy, fairness and even balance in coverage of the news (especially on hot-button topics). The alternative is often called the “European” model of the press, with editors and reporters producing stories that fit into an editorial template that supports the publication’s political slant.

In other words, these publications are biased and the editors admit that right up front. No one expects balanced coverage of social issues at Rolling Stone or World magazine, to name two publications with radically different moral perspectives.

But, to cut to the chase, what about The New York Times?

In recent years, the world’s most powerful newspaper has produced a frustrating mixture of “American” and “European” coverage, with perfectly balanced and fair-minded stories placed right next to other reports that made zero attempt to hide the bias of the editors. That is why those 2011 remarks by former editor Bill Keller — click here for background — were so important. He openly stated that it was no longer necessary for Times journalists to be objective, fair and balanced in coverage of news linked to moral, cultural and religious topics — such as abortion, gay rights, etc.

It appears that the editors of many other publications have made similar decisions, which is why frustrated GetReligion readers send us so many URLs pointing toward “news” articles that read like editorial essays. How often do we see stories that feature a wide variety of voices on one side of a hot-button topic and then zero material accurately expressing the views of people on the other side? How often do we see paragraph after paragraph of background material that is both slanted and free of any attribution?

This brings me, finally, to the first article in this new category. It’s from Forbes and, well, it reads like a press release for activists on one side of a battle linked to the Health and Human Services contraceptives mandate.

What is this? A news article? An editorial essay?

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December 19, 2013

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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December 13, 2013

Time magazine reports India’s Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s colonial era “sodomy laws”, ruling there is no “right” under the constitution to same-sex carnal relations. The court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could be repealed but only by the legislature not judicial fiat.

Time is not too happy about this. The magazine’s editorial voice can be heard through out “Homosexuality is Criminal Again as India’s Top Court Reinstates Ban”.  The lede states:

In a surprise move, India’s top court on Wednesday reversed a landmark judgment by a lower court decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. The court said that the law regarding homosexuality could only be changed by the government. “The legislature must consider deleting this provision (Section 377) from law as per the recommendations of the attorney general,” Justice GS Singhvi, the head of the two-judge Supreme Court bench said in Wednesday’s ruling.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court had overturned an archaic colonial law (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) that made gay sex an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment. Wednesday’s decision shocked many because while anticipation was high not many expected India’s top court, which in the past upheld many progressive rights judgments often going against the government and popular discourse, to revoke such a forward looking judgment.

“Archaic” is also used in the subheading of the story to describe the law. The commentary in the second sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate. The Attorney General of India had argued in favor of overturning the law — there is a hint of this in the quote from the court’s ruling, but nothing further.

The Hindu, one of India’s leading daily newspapers, noted the attorney general called the sodomy law a British import.

Mr. Vahanvati had said “the introduction of Section 377 in the IPC was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions, rather it was imposed upon Indian society by the colonisers due to their moral values. The Indian society prevalent before the enactment of the IPC had a much greater tolerance for homosexuality than its British counterpart, which at this time under the influence of Victorian morality and values in regard to family and the procreative nature of sex.”

Time makes its views clear in this paragraph.

While activists vow to challenge the ruling, the decision to decriminalize homosexuality is now in the hands of New Delhi. And while the good news is that the government has recently changed its position on the issue, arguing for it in the court pointing out that the anti-gay law in the country was archaic and that Indian society has grown more tolerant towards homosexuality, the bad news is that the country is heading for general polls in a few months and a much embattled coalition government is striving hard to retain power. It is thus highly unlikely that gay rights will take center stage in Indian Parliament any time soon.

“Good news”? That does cross the line dividing news and commentary.

There is also a lack of balance. Time quotes the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a “veteran LGBT activist” and other “[s]tunned LGBT activists”, but offers no voices in support of the decision, or an explanation of the legal principles offered by the court in its decision.

What then is going on in this story? Was there a breakdown in Time’s back office that permitted an ill-written story barely distinguishable from a press release making it through the editorial process?

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December 10, 2013

A long, long time ago, during the gentle, mild reign of GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, we used to have “5Q+1” features in which we asked journalists — including many not on the religion beat — a set of questions about their views on religion and the news.

Maybe we will bring that back sooner or later. That think ye?

As time went by, Sarah broadened the feature to include a wider variety of questions. In one such interview, she e-chatted with Michael Luo of The New York Times about a variety of subjects, including that whole “Linsanity” explosion in Madison Square Garden and the NBA in general. Click here for a refresher on that. One of the key exchanges went like this:

I grappled a good bit with what exactly I could say in my essay that was new and potentially instructive about Jeremy Lin. I thought about just explaining my emotional connection as an Asian American, which is arguably applicable to a broader swathe of people. But I realized writing about him as an Asian American Christian, specifically, could be illuminating, because it is a sub-category on the religious continuum that is not widely known. It is also a huge part of Lin’s identity. Understanding that he is an Asian American Christian, specifically, is important to understanding him, I felt. Of course, that is not what the entire piece was about. I was trying to explain this welter of emotions inside of me that he evokes and this multi-layered sense of connection.

Certainly, there is a danger in lumping all theologically conservative Christians, or “evangelicals,” together, because there are distinct differences in the histories, cultural milieus and general orientations of white, black, Asian and Latino evangelicals. Has the media papered over these distinctions? Sure. Part of it is our under-coverage of religion in general. The other part of it is just getting out there and covering these communities in thoughtful, in-depth ways.

When you tweeted that it was a vulnerable column, did you feel like you were risking something by writing about yourself? How do you think reporters who are open about their faith are perceived internally at their media outlets or externally as a reporter?

As a journalist, my instinct, in general, is to shy away from making myself the story in any way. The risk in identifying myself, as I did in the article, as one of these “every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the Bible-and-pray” types is on two levels. There’s the personal risk in terms of what others might think of me, whether they will instinctively try to put me in a certain box, or ascribe certain stereotypes onto me, which no one likes. There’s also the journalistic risk, in terms of whether it might affect my ability to do my job and be credible as an objective journalist. …

Now, journalist Paul Glader of The King’s College faculty (best known for his Wall Street Journal reporting) has explored some of the same material with Luo in an interview featured in the current issue of Christianity Today.

There is material in this piece that I know will interest regular GetReligion readers, since it relates directly to interactions between religion and journalism and religion in major newsrooms, such as The Times. The key is that Luo sees the connections between religion and real life, including his own work covering criminal justice.

For starters, there is this:

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December 6, 2013

Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

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