July 29, 2014

It’s time for another “Kellerism” update, as The New York Times continues its efforts to highlight religious institutions with doctrines that are unacceptable to the newsroom’s theologians and, perhaps, the U.S. Department of Justice. This time, the drama shifts out West, where another Christian college community is trying to find a way to live out its faith commitments.

NEWBERG, Ore. — A growing number of openly transgender students have forced schools around the country to address questions so basic that they were rarely asked just a few years ago, much less answered: What defines a person’s gender, and who gets to decide?

A small Christian college here, George Fox University, has become the latest front in this fight, refusing to recognize as male a student who was born anatomically female. The student calls himself a man, and as of April 11, when a state circuit court legally changed his sex, the State of Oregon agrees.

But George Fox University sees him as a woman, and it prohibits unwed students from living with anyone of the opposite sex.

Notice the question that was not asked, in an alleged news story that opens with an editorial assertion: If a private — as opposed to state — college is a doctrinally defined voluntary association, what happens when a student decides that he or she does not believe those doctrines? Think of it this way: If a student at a Muslim college decided to convert to Christianity, thus contradicting the covenant he voluntarily signed when he came to the campus, would the college be able to say that this student had to accept the school’s doctrinal authority?

If private religious organizations have the right to define their communities in terms of doctrine, does this First Amendment right no longer apply to doctrines linked to sex? The other way I have stated the question is this: Does the First Amendment’s promise of free exercise of religion still apply to traditional religious believers who reject many of the doctrines linked to the Sexual Revolution?

The leaders of the Times team, of course, do not appear to be interested in that half of the debate that is at the heart of this news story. Thus, this report crashes, as an attempt at journalism. Why?

The answer, of course, is “Kellerism.” What is that? Here is a reminder from a recent post, when I first coined that term. The key is the famous 2011 remarks by former Times editor Bill Keller, when he said that the basic rules of journalism no longer apply to coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues.

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper.”

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.”

The words “aside from” are the doors into “Kellerism.” It’s first journalism-defining doctrine is:

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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 1, 2014

In grading first-day coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law, I gave The New York Times a D.

My explanation for the near-failing grade:

The NYTimes’ front-page story does an excellent job of explaining where the justices came down. But the Old Gray Lady shows her bias when it comes to reporting reactions to the decision, giving top billing — and much more space — to Planned Parenthood than the winning plaintiff.

The newspaper improved its performance — let’s give it an A for enterprise and a B for overall content — with a second-day story out of Boston exploring what the Supreme Court decision means for both sides.

The NYTimes gives readers a firsthand view of a clinic where the yellow line no longer matters:

BOSTON — Lorraine Loewen, 74, says she comes here once a week to demonstrate against abortion outside of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts health care center.

On Friday, the morning after the Supreme Court struck down restrictions that had created no-protest buffer zones near abortion clinics, she stood inside the yellow line on the pavement that marked a 35-foot radius around the clinic’s entrance.

Ms. Loewen, a retiree from Dedham, Mass., approached a woman and a man who had climbed out of a taxi and were walking toward the clinic, which provides an array of sexual health services, including abortions, and spoke softly in the woman’s ear. She handed the woman a pamphlet depicting a woman’s face and the words, “It’s your choice.”

“I asked her if we could be of any help,” Ms. Loewen said, adding that she preferred talking close up with the people going to the clinic rather than yelling at them from outside the line.

On Friday, Ms. Loewen and a handful of other demonstrators were among the first anti-abortion activists, as a few police officers looked on and a volunteer escort stood ready to bring patients inside the clinic.

From there, the story offers brief background on the high court ruling and then turns to a long section outlining concerns of state officials and abortion-rights advocates who favored the buffer zone law.

The NYTimes allows one couple to complain anonymously about the protesters:

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June 27, 2014

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As my GetReligion colleague Jim Davis highlighted this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law.

News junkie that I am, I enjoyed perusing today’s front pages and searching Google News to see how various news organizations handled the story.

Using my media critic’s prerogative, I decided to grade some of the coverage.

My major criteria: First, how fully did a particular story cover the important details — including the court’s majority and minority opinions, the reactions by the parties involved in the case and the responses by activists on both sides of the abortion debate? Second, how fairly did the story treat all sides?

My grades:

• Associated Press: D.

The AP covers the justices’ opinions fairly but favors abortion-rights sources in reporting reactions. Pro-abortion Planned Parenthood gets preferential treatment throughout the story, while a quote from the abortion protesters’ attorney is buried.

• Boston Globe: B.

The Globe’s coverage of the ruling concerning its home state features a lead story that quotes a variety of sources, from the main parties to anti-abortion Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and a pro-abortion health center owner. However, the story lacks details on the court’s decision itself and how various justices differed even as all nine opposed the law.

CBS News broadcast report: A.

In a report that runs about two-and-a-half minutes, CBS presents the key facts and on-camera reaction interviews with both an abortion-rights activist and an anti-abortion advocate — both of whom come across as intelligent and professional.

Chicago Tribune: A.

Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman’s Page 1 story mixes excellent insight on the Supreme Court ruling with an important local angle — the potential impact on Chicago’s 8-foot “bubble zone.” The story is thorough and presents a wide range of sources.

Fox 25 in Boston: F.

It’s difficult to imagine lazier, more biased “journalism” than this television news report manages in three minutes. The report shows five sources on camera — all aghast at the court’s ruling.

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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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April 30, 2014

Every niche website has a few “big ideas” that drive its work day after day. Any GetReligion reader knows — duh — that one of our big ideas is that the press often doesn’t see crucial religious themes and facts that are at the heart of important news stories. That’s the whole “ghost” concept that is explained in the essay published when we opened for business. If you never stopped to read that one, please do.

Another crucial concept for your GetReligionistas is that we are convinced that the “hotter” the story, the more a topic causes public division and debate, the more journalists should commit themselves to seeking out informed, qualified, representative voices on both sides. Of course, there are two sides or more, in many complex stories. This concept is central to what journalism textbooks would call the “American model of the press,” as opposed to the various forms of advocacy journalism in which the editors of publications openly slant their coverage to favor the editorial viewpoint that defines their newspaper.

That’s why it was so important when Bill Keller, days after he stepped down as New York Times editor, said the following in a public forum when he was asked if his newspaper slanted the news to the left:

“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 were the crucial “social” or moral values stories in American life during his tenure? And how about in the news today? Well, any list would have to include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other topics that, for a majority of Americans, are inevitably linked to religion.

That brings me to yet another mainstream journalism story in which editors appear to be totally comfortable publishing a one-side advocacy piece that offers zero content from informed voices on one side of a global debate.

Journalists in the audience: Raise your hands if you know that there are multiple camps in the Catholic Church today on issues related to sexuality? If you are breathing right now, your hand should be raised high.

So what are the editors of The Los Angeles Times trying to do in the piece that ran under this headline: “Vatican to debate teachings on divorce, birth control, gay unions.”

Note the word “debate.” That implies that there are competing voices, correct?

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January 20, 2014

Anyone who has read GetReligion for, oh, more than a week knows that we are not pleased when journalists attempt to jam the complex beliefs of large groups of people into the cramped zones defined by simplistic labels.

Obviously, one of the most abused labels in religion news is “fundamentalist.” We like to quote the Associated Press Stylebook at this point, the part where it proclaims:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Another oh so popular and all but meaningless label, these days, is “moderate.” A decade ago, the independent panel assembled by the leaders of The New York Times to study the newsroom’s strengths and weaknesses noted in its public report:

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.

We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

In effect, mainstream journalists often are tempted to use this f-word to describe religious people that they don’t like, while reserving the gentle m-word for those whose views are found acceptable in newsroom culture.

With that in mind, readers may understand why I was rather skeptical when I dug into the recent New York Times report that ran under the headline, “Where Free Speech Collides With Abortion Rights.” After all, my biases on these issues are well known. I am both a pro-life Democrat (and Eastern Orthodox Christian layman) and a rather fire-breathing defender of the First Amendment. I was worried about what would happen when the open Sexual Revolution advocacy stance of the Times (hello, Bill Keller) collided with the First Amendment rights of believers engaged in politically incorrect protests.

What did I fear?

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November 17, 2013

At this point, I think it is safe to say — as our own Bobby Ross, Jr., has demonstrated numerous times — that many mainstream American journalists have decided that there is no need to cover both sides of gay-rights stories in a balanced and accurate manner. Many professionals in the mainstream press are now practicing a brand of advocacy journalism when covering religious believers whose religious/moral doctrines are not the same as their own.

Do we have former New York Times editor Bill Keller to thank for some of this, or is the mainstreaming of the values preached by the prophets of the 1970s “New Journalism” era simply a sign of the times?

The other day, the staff at The Philadelphia Inquirer served up a perfect example of what your GetReligionistas are talking about. The curtain rises:

PHILADELPHIA — It began with one pastor and two grooms. But after the vows had been exchanged, the other clergy moved forward from their pews.

About 50 of them filled the front of Arch Street United Methodist Church on Saturday. The closest rested their hands on the couple. The rest placed their palms on the clergy nearest.

“Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder,” they said in unison, blessing the same-sex union in defiance of church law.

This is the latest act in the ongoing drama of the the Rev. Frank Schaefer of Lebanon, Pa., who is about to face trial — under church law — for performing a marriage rite for his own son and another man. Each of the ministers who stepped forward to endorse the rite at Arch Street United Methodist now risks being charged with the same offense.

So what are the essential elements that should be included in a story about this highly divisive issue?

* You need a brief summary of the historical facts about this conflict in United Methodism and the oldline Protestant world, in general. We are talking decades, of course.

* You need to know what the church’s Book of Discipline actually teaches.

* You need solid quotes from those who oppose the existing church law, quotes that explain why they believe that centuries of Christian doctrine on this topic must be changed.

* It would help to have a dash of color from the rite itself, with examples of how this rite differs from the language used in traditional marriage services.

* Readers also need to hear from one or more articulate defenders of the church law, offering responses to the views of those rebelling against the church’s teachings.

So, want to guess how many of these factors end up being included in the Philly.com story?

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