Journalism strategies in a hostile marketplace (2001)

Soon after John Grisham finished law school in 1981, he started hanging out at the DeSoto County Courthouse on the town square in Hernando, Miss.

He had tried writing a book or two at the University of Mississippi, but nothing came of it. Then one day he overheard the horrifying courtroom testimony of a 12-year-old girl who had been raped. What would happen, he asked himself, if the girl’s father became so outraged that he killed the rapist?

Grisham couldn’t get this story out of his head. Soon he was getting up at 5 a.m. with a notepad, writing chapter after chapter of his first courtroom drama. It took three years to finish the manuscript, and another year of rejections by dozens of companies, before Wynwood Press published 5,000 copies in 1988.

But there was more to this process than telling a story that was in his head and heart.

“While I was writing ‘A Time to Kill,’ I read everything that was on the New York Times list,” said Grisham, at a Baylor University conference called “Art & Soul” in March, 2000. “Most of it, I said to myself, ‘I can do better than this.’ A lot of it, I said, ‘I’ll never be that good.’ ”

Grisham realized that he was not writing the first legal thriller. So he read the competition and he learned the rules — the writing style of the marketplace in which he would have to compete. He created a likable hero and then he ensnared him in a dangerous conspiracy. Then he carefully plotted a way to get him out of that mess, with as many entertaining twists and turns along the way as possible to create tension.

“I didn’t invent that,” said Grisham.

And before that first, highly personal, book was off the presses, he started the second one — “The Firm.” Grisham decided to make it just like the first book, only more so. Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher refused to heed an agent’s advice to “spice this thing up a little” with some sexy subplots.

“I made a calculated decision,” said Grisham, “to write a story that was as slick and as compulsive and as commercial as I could possibly make it, without resorting to a lot of things that I don’t put in books.”

What Grisham did was set out to master a highly specific craft so that he could take a message into the public square. That meant having both the drive and the humility to sit down and learn the rules of the arena in which he wanted to succeed. He had to do his homework. Eventually, he made a few compromises that he felt he could make, while refusing to make other compromises that would violate his own values and faith.

I have a reason for bringing up this story, at the start of a discussion of what can be done to bring fresh voices and more diversity into another corner of the public marketplace — the one called mainstream journalism.

All writers have to master a specific style and craft, while accepting, to a greater or lesser degree, its rules and limitations. This may mean years of hard work just to learn a form of writing that is not precisely the form that the writer most yearns to practice. That’s the way things work. Piano players have to play scales before they can play Chopin or jazz. Writers must learn the skills that they need to survive, in order to earn the right to take the messages that they most want to share to as many readers as possible.

This is what Grisham was willing to do. He didn’t like all of the rules of the legal-thriller game, but he mastered them. He made a conscious decision to compete in a larger game, playing by as many of its rules as he possibly could. To use an old Southern saying, he didn’t settle for preaching to the choir. He dared to court the American marketplace as a whole, not, let’s say, the niche for Southern Baptists who like to read cleaned-up crime stories.

This is precisely what we need in journalism and the sooner the better.

We need more journalists, not fewer, and we need real journalists from different backgrounds and cultures. This would sound like a new variation on the political-correctness themes of American progressives, only that the largest gap in the American newsroom is between the “mainstream” journalistic elites and the separatist world of moral and cultural conservatives.

But there’s a problem. The critics of mainstream American journalism have grown far too accustomed to complaining about how they are locked out of the media centers that count. While a wide variety of Americans have bones to pick with the journalism establishment, most of these critics can accurately be labeled “conservative” and an unusually high percentage of them are Judeo-Christian religious conservatives.

Well, I’m convinced that many “conservative” and even “Judeo-Christian” writers are not working in the world of mainstream journalism because they don’t want to learn the rules of mainstream journalism. Please note that I am not saying that the rules are perfect and I am not saying that all of the competitors play by the rules all of the time. I’m not even saying that the rules are, these days, consistently enforced by the referees.

But rules do exist and journalists must learn them if they want to escape their ideological niches. But I fear that one of the main causes of the ideological imbalance that exists in mainstream journalism is that conservative institutions, especially America’s religious institutions and schools, are doing little or nothing to produce journalists who have mastered the skills required to work in real newsrooms.

When it comes to journalism, these institutions are now reaping what they have sowed, through their flight from the marketplace. They are getting the journalism that they deserve.

Meanwhile, Grisham’s career offers one more sobering lesson. It was only after he had shown that he could succeed in the mainstream, that he could begin focusing his readers’ attention on deeper stories and issues that mattered most to him as a writer.

It rarely works the other way around. Writers must learn to be craftsmen before they can be pundits or, heaven forbid, preachers.

Grisham did write a gritty death-row conversion scene in “The Chamber,” an inspiring plot twist that would seem right at home in a Billy Graham movie. But that followed the run-away commercial success of “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “The Client.” Latter, a church project with the homeless led to “The Street Lawyer.” A missionary trip inspired “The Testament.” A writer can get away with plots like that, when he has millions of books in print.

It isn’t enough to tell good stories, or for journalists, to have good information, great contacts and fresh story ideas. The writer has to play by, and respect, the rules. Win a few big games and then you can call some of your own plays.

“When I write a legal thriller, that’s where I start,” he said. “If I’m lucky, and if the timing is right, I can then take an issue — like homelessness, or tobacco litigation, or insurance fraud, or the death penalty — and wrap the story around that. … That’s how I do it.”

While I was teaching journalism at a Christian liberal arts college during the 1990s, a conservative Beltway think tank came out with a red bumper sticker that said: “I’m fed up with the liberal media.” My students really liked that and one suggested that I do what most professors do with cartoons and headlines they like, which is stick them up as quasi-political statements in their offices.

After all, said a student, doesn’t that bumper sticker say what you have been saying semester after semester? Well, no, that was not what I had been saying.

Before I stuck the sticker on a filing cabinet, I drew a black X over the word “the,” so that revised slogan said: “I’m fed up with liberal media.”

Marking out that little word made a big difference, I told my students. For the simple, statistical truth is that American media, even the maligned mainstream press, are not all liberal and some are more liberal than others on specific issues. The reality is more complex than that. Part of the story is that journalists are more likely to be united by a shared cultural and educational background than they are by articulated political or theological dogmas.

In other words, there is no conspiracy to produce THE liberal media. You don’t need a conspiracy when so many journalists go to the same schools, work their way up through the same media structures and respect the same cultural heroes, while hating the same enemies. But the divisions are real and they do affect the news, especially on cultural issues.

Journalist Peter Brown can show you that in a unique set of statistics that he has collected, data that started with the home addresses and zip codes of 3,400 journalists in markets such as Little Rock, Ark., and Knoxville, Tenn., as well as Washington, D.C., and Denver. Brown is not a scribe for a conservative think tank or the Religious Right. Today, he edits the Sunday Insight section of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel and he used to be the chief political writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.

What Brown learned through his research was that anyone looking for journalists should look in neighborhoods that the marketing experts describe with labels such as “Bohemian mix” and “money and brains.” Journalists are much more likely to be single than married, with children. They read Rolling Stone instead of Christianity Today. They go to the theater, instead of yard sales. They eat sushi instead of Tater Tots. Most journalists simply do not speak the language of people who live in suburbs and Brown thinks that they look down their noses at the lives of ordinary Americans.

U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo is convinced: “Reporters tend to be part of a broadly defined social and cultural elite, so their work tends to reflect the conventional values of this elite. The astonishing distrust of the news media isn’t rooted in inaccuracy or poor reportorial skills but in the daily clash of worldviews between reporters and their readers. Brown says of journalists: ‘They simply do not share political, religious, or monetary values with the general population.’

“This is an explosive situation for any industry, particularly a declining one. Here is a troubled business that keeps hiring employees whose attitudes vastly annoy the customers. Then it sponsors lots of symposiums and a credibility project dedicated to wondering why customers are annoyed and fleeing in large numbers. But it never seems to get around to noticing the cultural and class biases that so many former buyers are complaining about. If it did, it would open up its diversity program, now focused narrowly on race and gender, and look for reporters who differ broadly by outlook, values, education and class.”

As Brown once told me, when discussing the “disconnect” between mainstream newspapers and cultural conservatives: “Any business that doesn’t understand or respect the lives of somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of its potential customers isn’t a business that is very serious about growing or even surviving.”

Naturally, many of the dissatisfied customers have been tempted to assume that turnabout is fair play. It isn’t surprising that many religious and cultural conservatives have developed their own negative attitudes toward journalists. In his still unpublished book, Brown tells one story that is symbolic, funny and sobering.

“The Salvation Army headed relief efforts in Waco, Texas, in the spring of 1993 when 80 men, women and children holed up from federal law enforcement officials for almost two months in a (Branch Davidian) compound before perishing in a conflagration. During that period, it got a few dozen calls from people who saw pictures showing this group distributing coffee, cold drinks and sandwiches to the hundreds of reporters on hand. One woman from Detroit was so incensed she called the Salvation Army commander there, Maj. Avedis Kasarian. ‘She said her blood pressure went up about 40 points when she read we were serving the news media,’ he recalled. ‘She couldn’t understand why anyone would be nice to journalists.’ ”

Conservative politicians know that these feelings exist out there and, thus, include attacks on journalists in virtually all of their speeches and writings. In a special pre-2000 election issue of The American Enterprise, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich bluntly stated that politicians on the left side of the aisle knew that they had unique advantages as they navigated the troubled waters of the presidency of Bill Clinton and planned ahead.

“They … understood that media bias would save them over and over,” said Gingrich, who left office scarred by his own media battles. “I suggest the odds are at least even money that by November, the person the Republicans nominate in March will be almost unrecognizable as the same person to the average American, because the media will subject the nominee to an unending, relentless, hostile redefinition.”

What’s the solution? Gingrich urges conservatives to buck up and, for the most part, to ignore the press and communicate as directly as possible to the American people — presumably through advertising and alternative forms of media that can effectively target niche groups, such as talk-radio, the Internet and conservative magazines.

But Gingrich also stresses that an increasingly pivotal venue, these days, is television entertainment and forms of popular culture that create and break the careers of celebrities and politicians, alike. He doesn’t have much to say about the fact that the elite leaders of the entertainment media are, culturally, to the left of the news media.

“In the age of the elite media,” he concludes, “we must focus on the grassroots and not on Washington. I would say to any presidential candidate, You had better have three or four big ideas, and you had better stick to them, and you had better not answer questions about little things, because one of the little things will become the headline, the lead on the evening news, the cover of the newsmagazine, and you never know which one it is because they will ask you 40 until they get to the one that hurts you the most.”

Gingrich knows that journalists control one corner of the infamous Washington, D.C., triangle of media, government and lobby groups-academia- think tanks.

But for some reason, he thinks that cultural and political conservatives are going to be able to get their messages out and receive fair coverage while competing in only two of the three corners in this interconnected, almost claustrophobic triangle that is the foundation of American politics. For some reason, he thinks that he can wish away the power of the press.

So get out there, says the former speaker, and preach to the choir. It’s inevitable that the journalists who cover your sermons will intentionally distort what you have to say and there is nothing that can be done about that.

Read the speeches of conservative leaders and, day after day, year after year, you will find variations on this same angry theme. It’s good for fundraising.

It’s true that journalists will be journalists. But it is also unrealistic and unwise to think that conservatives could “take over” a few major newsrooms and then bring balance the marketplace of ideas. That isn’t going to happen and that isn’t what needs to happen, anyway.

The only way to promote balance and accuracy in mainstream journalism is to increase the number of skilled, committed and fair journalists who work in mainstream newsrooms. This will only happen when the critics of mainstream journalism spend less time thinking about “liberal” journalism and “conservative” journalism and spend more time thinking about improving journalism — PERIOD — for the common good of all. This will require gaining an appreciation for the role that journalism is supposed to play in American culture and a genuine understanding of the codes and traditions that are supposed to guide the news industry.

In other words, mainstream journalism will be improved by people who love journalism and who want to work in the mainstream, not by people who hate journalism.

Meanwhile it is also unrealistic to think that journalistic entrepreneurs who focus solely on alternative media — talk radio, the Web, and a few tiny news periodicals for true believers — will have a major impact. After all, niche journalists in alternative media spend most of their time commenting on the sins of omission and commission in the real media, the dominant newspapers, wire services and networks.

At some point, someone needs to talk about finding ways to increase interaction between news consumers and news producers. Someone needs to find a way to produce some real journalists who hail from different zip codes and campuses and pews. The people who run newsrooms are supposed to be committed to putting as much information as possible, and as many viewpoints as possible, into the marketplace of ideas.

What we need is more information, more competition and more journalists. What we don’t need is more writers who settle for preaching to the choir.

Once, tennis fans with cable connections occasionally could see Jun Kuki and Jan Kamiwasumi compete in major tournaments in London, Paris, Sidney or New York. They didn’t win many top matches and they never won one of the majors, but they were fine sportsmen and did a lot to promote and improve tennis back home in Japan.

In the end, they helped create a separate professional tour for Japanese players. Now, it’s rare to see Japanese professionals venture into the tougher competition of the international tour. After all, it was easier and less painful for them to earn their fame and fortune in Japan. This also meant that most Japanese players stopped trying to improve their skills by competing, and usually losing, to the world’s best players.

“Obviously, with this kind of attitude, no Japanese player will ever win Wimbleton or the U.S. Open,” writes the late sports executive Bob Briner, in his book “Roaring Lambs.” “No player from Japan will ever be ranked number one in the world. Japan will almost certainly never win the Davis Cup. … Even more sadly, no Kukis or Kamiwasumis will be out there in the great international mix of players, bringing their own special flavor, adding their own special perspective to the sport.” Japanese players still compete, but only with each other. “No one knows the names of any of the players. No one knows.”

And then Briner nails home his point: “Christian writers are like Japanese tennis players.”

I apologize for dragging religion into this.

However, but it’s impossible to discuss the conflicts between America’s journalistic elites and cultural conservatives without talking about conflicts rooted in religion and morality, especially hot-button issues such as abortion, Darwinian orthodoxy and sex outside of marriage. It is impossible to study the secular research in the field of media bias without coming face to face with religion. Numerous secular research groups — from the Freedom Forum to the Center for Media and Public Affairs — have published data demonstrating that the most dedicated critics of the American press can be found in traditional religious sanctuaries.

All kinds of conservatives get mad at journalists and all kinds of conservatives have been tempted to try to wave a major wand and make the mainstream press go away. But no one has been madder, longer, than religious conservatives and no one has worked harder to set up a parallel media culture in and attempt to do an end-run and avoid the mainstream media.

I have seen this close up, because, for the past two decades, I have worked as a journalist who covers religion news in the secular press — including 12 years as the weekly “On Religion” columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. Also, starting in the early 1990s, I have lectured about media and culture in numerous seminaries and colleges, while teaching at Denver Seminary, Milligan College and in the nationwide Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

Briner is right. Peter Brown is right, too.

The mainstream press and traditional religious groups are just not getting along and, at times, it seems that no one on either side of this divide wants to improve the situation. This is affecting politics. It is affecting newspaper sales and television ratings. And I am convinced this bitter gap also is affecting who works in newsrooms and who does not. This gap must be addressed and, only after doing so, can be begin to ask questions about strategies to add all kinds of ideological diversity in American newsrooms.

I learned that this gap existed soon after I became a working journalist. But it really locked into my mind once I started working with students on the campuses of Christian colleges and universities. Let me offer one symbolic story, taken from a visit I made a decade ago to a campus in the Ozarks.

It was a sleepy Saturday morning, but the young journalist who joined me for breakfast was bright-eyed and enthusiastic. The day before, I had lectured to a student gathering about the biases that I believe shape the mainstream media’s coverage of moral, cultural and religious issues. She was surprised that I thought the biggest problem was not outright prejudice, or even hatred, but the lack of people in newsrooms who had any knowledge of the complicated world of religion or who were even interested in learning more about it.

Anyway, she said she enjoyed the lecture so much that, afterwards, she went to a local convenience store and bought her first newspaper.

Go back and read that sentence again.

I almost keeled over, face down, in my grits. The student said her parents used to take the local daily, but they got so mad at the newspaper that they stopped. She was a junior in college, she said, and she had never bought a newspaper before with her own money. I regrouped and asked the obvious question: Why are you majoring in journalism?

“I like to write and I want to write for a Christian magazine someday,” she said. “Either that, or I’ll go into public relations.”

I have heard these kinds of remarks for years. This young religious believer did not want to be a journalist, let alone a mainstream journalist. Up to this point in her life, she had watched some television news and scanned a few newspapers, but she had never really been exposed to the journalism marketplace. And this is crucial: she had not grown up or been educated in an environment in which the craft of journalism was respected or praised.

She said she liked to write, which meant that she liked to write essays about her feelings and beliefs. She wanted to be a “Christian” writer (substitute “conservative” if you wish). She might consider becoming a “Christian” journalist (substitute “conservative” if you wish).

But she had no real interest in being a journalist. She did not like mainstream journalists or journalism and neither did her parents, for that matter. She was convinced there was no place for her in that field of work. If there were “Christian” newspapers, that produced news to please an audience of “Christian” consumers, then that might be acceptable. She did not want to have to make any compromises. She didn’t want to work in the public square. Well, she might work in politics.

She is not alone. And she has mentors.

Some people believe that moral and cultural conservatives should strive to find a way to produce more “conservative” or “Judeo-Christian” journalists, so that the marketplace will include more magazines, newsletters, radio shows and perhaps even more niche cable television networks that can compete with existing journalistic institutions.

That may be good and, in fact, this is almost certain to happen in the age of explosive growth in digital media, both in print, audio and video, as well as in Internet projects that blend all three. But this will not put new voices in the mainstream media. It will not help repair the “disconnect” that Peter Brown and other researchers see between major newsrooms and large blocks of suburban readers, people of faith and cultural conservatives. It will not add the kind of ideological diversity in newsrooms that might lead to increased, effective efforts to promote balanced and fair coverage of heated cultural and moral debates.

At some point, cultural conservatives must admit that they will only have an impact on mainstream journalism when they raise and educate more young people who like and respect journalism.

What is preventing this from happening? As discussed earlier, part of the problem is anger and distrust of the news media and, to some degree, this is understandable.

But I believe that the main answer to this question is a matter of journalism philosophy. Once again, conservatives tend to think that the solution to biased journalism on the cultural left is to respond with waves of biased journalism from the right.

The philosophical conflict can be seen most clearly in a debate taking place among Christian conservatives that focuses on a broader issue about the goals and rules of journalism, itself. This is, I am convinced, a debate between two philosophies of journalism — one European and one American. This is especially easy to see in debates about news coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues.

  • First of all, there is what historians call the “American” model of the press.

This model evolved in the mid-19th Century, as American editors used faster printing presses to reach out to mass audiences, promising them that they would be given news that was factually accurate, “fair,” “neutral” and some would even dare to say “objective.” At the very least, this model commits the journalist to seeking a 50-50, balanced approach presenting both sides of controversial issues. Note that we live in an age when most conservatives — no matter what camp they are in — claim that they would welcome the chance to engage in 50-50 debates with opponents.

Meanwhile, people of faith who work in the secular media often cite the “American model of the press” as a worthy ideal for those who humbly work in a sinful, fallen world. I have heard other believers in mainstream journalism voice views such as, “God is not afraid of fair debates” or “We’re sinners, too. We must strive to be fair to other viewpoints.”

In other words, “It’s journalism, stupid.”

  • But there is another approach. If the American model seeks balance, fairness, or, to use a loaded term, “objectivity,” then there are others who openly call for a journalistic approach based on subjectivity, opinion and analysis. This is often referred to as a “European” model of the press.

This viewpoint argues that all journalists write from highly personal perspectives and that they should confess this worldview right up front.

Journalists are, in this model, still expected to be accurate, but they are not expected to hide their biases and in some cases they may not even be expected to be fair to other points of view. In America, this approach can be seen in many political magazines and journals — such as The New Republic or National Review. It is also important to remember that, in the 1960s and ’70s, this approach was at the heart of the so-called “new journalism” movement and it influenced a generation of American journalists.

We must openly acknowledge that this viewpoint is alive and well, today.

This “European” model is filtering back into mainstream American newsrooms, although rarely embraced openly. This approach is especially tempting to the moral pluralists and progressives who, statistically, dominate elite media. After all, in this postmodern age there are many public figures and thinkers who would claim that the only objective truth is that there are no objective truths.

Here is one example, chosen from many. In March of 1999, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of an anti-abortion activist who had veered far outside the pro-life movement and, apparently, into deadly violence. As he concluded his article, writer David Samuels made the following observation about public issues of right and wrong, truth and error: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy. … Perhaps sacrifice in the name of a higher good — God, Marx, freedom or whatever the good of the moment happens to be — is admirable only as long as you support the cause. Or perhaps, in the absence of absolutes, we must judge beliefs not by their inherent righteousness but by their visible consequences.”

Many cultural and religious conservatives are convinced that this is precisely what most journalists think of them. People who believe in absolute truth are crazy. It’s that simple. How are journalists supposed to do fair and balanced coverage of crazy people?

I am convinced that the closer you get to the gospel of the sexual revolution, the more likely you are to hit statistical evidence of cultural bias in newsrooms. In her own way, this is what Maureen Dowd of the New York Times was writing about when she argued, at the peak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that the enemies of President Clinton were seeking revenge for Woodstock and “attempting to repeal the 1960s.”

Dowd is right on target. A recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs noted that journalists remain paragons of progressive virtues on hot moral issues. In 1980, 90 percent were pro-abortion rights. It was 97 percent in the mid-1990s. Support for gay rights was 76 percent in 1980 and slipped by a statistically insignificant amount, to 73 percent, in the new report.

Thus, it’s easy to argue that a high percentage of American journalists morph into European journalists when they cover news stories that have anything to do with sex.

And there are strong voices in the media marketplace that are urging journalists to do just that, including lobby groups with chapters operating inside mainstream newsrooms. In October, 1999, conservative columnist L. Brent Bozell III of the Media Research Center printed remarks by a leader of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in which she claimed that it is time for reporters and editors to cut their ties to the journalistic canons of the past, to, in effect, trash the American model of the press.

“One of the most important things you can do is have those tough conversations with journalists about when it is completely inappropriate to run to some radical group like the Family Research Council because of misguided notions of ‘balance,’ ” said spokeswoman Cathy Renna of GLAAD. “We have to offer them more moderate voices, or convince them that there is no other side to these issues.

“We are now in the position of being able to say, ‘We have the high ground, we have the facts and we don’t have to go one-on-one with these people.’ ”

Once again, how are journalists supposed to do “fair” and “balanced” reporting about crazy people? Why would any self-respecting, civic-minded journalist want to try?

As I said earlier, it is tempting, in such an atmosphere, for moral and cultural conservatives to think that the best way to get ahead is by getting even.

  • Today, there is another influential voice, on the conservative side of the aisle, in these debates between advocates of the American and European models of the press — Dr. Marvin Olasky.

Olasky is a biased journalist and he believes God wants him to be a biased journalist. The University of Texas journalism historian is convinced that if the secular media elites are going to be biased and unbalanced, then “Christian journalists” and, presumably other alternative conservative journalists, must be willing to fight fire with fire. Olasky is best known as a writer whose work on poverty, abortion and other cultural issues influenced Newt Gingrich during the GOP surge in the 1990s and George W. Bush in the 2000 race for the White House.

However, Olasky is more than a professor and political strategist. He also leads the newsmagazine World, which allows him to put many of his journalistic convictions into action. As editor, Olasky admits that he encourages his reporters to ditch traditional standards of fairness and objectivity. Instead, he says journalists should write the news stories that God wants them to write, the way God wants them written. The goal is “true objectivity” or the “God’s-eye view.”

“Biblically, there is no neutrality. . Christian reporters should give equal space to a variety of perspectives only when the Bible is unclear,” argues Olasky, in his book “Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism.” “A solidly Christian news publication should not be balanced. Its goal should be provocative and evocative, colorful and gripping, Bible-based news analysis.”

Olasky calls this “directed reporting” or “biblical sensationalism.” Many people disagree and call it heresy.

Let me stress that Olasky is a journalist, one who should be praised for his candor. He openly mocks those who, when push comes to shove, revert to a kind of “public relations” model that promotes purely positive coverage of friends and allies. He doesn’t want to settle for writing and publishing what one critic called “happy little Christian stories.” Olasky likes news and he likes journalism.

Nevertheless, Olasky’s philosophy of “directed reporting” is, at its heart, a clarion call for the already marginalized world of religious conservatism to embrace, as its primary journalistic model, a “European” approach to the news. In other words, Olasky wants to respond to the journalistic sins of our age by openly adopting the philosophy that some mainstream journalists have covertly adopted. When it comes to matters of journalism philosophy, his viewpoint echoes the approach defended by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

To put it bluntly: How are journalists supposed to do “fair” and “balanced” reporting about immoral, liberal people? Why would any biblical, conservative journalist want to try?

It’s impossible to run away from institutions that are built on the First Amendment.

Both the critics and supporters of mainstream American journalism cannot avoid this debate about the canons of journalism (and whether there are, in fact, any canons of journalism). Ask almost any practical question about news-media strategies, journalism education and a host of other issues referred to in this chapter and this philosophical question will present itself. Ask any question about media bias and you will find yourself arguing, whether you realize it or not, about the American and European models of the press.

Obviously, it’s impossible to discuss ways to “improve” or to “restore” journalism without some agreement on common goals.

Conservatives love to criticize the mainstream press. But should moral and cultural conservatives listen to voices such as Gingrich and write off the mainstream media, in effect waving a bloody white flag and then fleeing to the safe niches of talk radio and legions of European-philosophy news sites on the World Wide Web?

What will that accomplish? What impact will that have on the information systems that serve all Americans? Will that improve the diversity or the fairness or the accuracy of the common lens through which we view life in the public square?

No, it won’t. The critics of mainstream journalism must commit themselves to achieving two goals that may, at first, seem to be in conflict with each other. First, they must acknowledge the positive role that journalism plays in our society and strive to inspire more talented people to pursue careers in journalism. It’s time to give journalism some respect. Then, and only then, can the critics pursue a second goal, which is to raise the volume of their communications — positive and negative — with the powers that be in journalism at the local and national levels.

How would they do this?

  • Right now, the leaders of America’s news operations are more sensitive than they have ever been to issues of circulation and the concerns of their customers. This may sound simplistic, but it is time for the critics of journalism to BUY newspaper subscriptions, not cancel them. It’s time to buy ads linked to the news companies and the specific news products that are doing the best job of being fair and accurate, not just cancel ads with the offenders.
  • I have heard politicians, civic leaders and preachers rip news coverage from their podiums and pulpits. I don’t think I have every heard the same forum used for praise, or to encourage some form or reasoned, balanced interaction with news professionals.
  • One of the most important corners of the public square is the “water cooler” or coffee machine in the American workplace. I think it would help if other civic settings, including churches and synagogues, actively promoted similar settings for discussions of public life.
    Try to imagine “news alert” services, even VCRs with news highlights, near the coffee machines in fellowship halls from coast to coast. What if the Web sites of major congregations and civic organizations featured prominent links promoting interaction with the news?
  • The great evangelist Leighton Ford once said that it would help if every seminary in America offered a mandatory class requiring its students to learn how to relate to the leaders of their local newspapers and television stations — starting with how to call them and how to answer their calls. He’s right.
  • I once tried to teach seminarians how to use two contrasting highlighter pens to mark up controversial news stories, trying to count quotes and add up the inches to provide information — positive and negative — for discussions with journalists. Most had never tried to study the local newspaper to determine if it was providing balanced coverage of divisive news issues.
  • I have never met a young journalist who was raised in a home in which the parents had little or no interest in the news and some kind of respect for the people who report the news. Once again, respect and criticism go hand in hand.
  • There is an urgent need for donors to support a two-pronged approach to journalism education. Right now, the critics of journalism tend to invest their time and money in programs and institutions that, well, criticize journalism. That work may be valid, but it’s one-sided.
    But what if donors made it possible for more students to attend the nation’s top mainstream journalism schools, with the money flowing through organizations that are concerned about traditional views of culture, faith and other politically incorrect subjects?

Meanwhile, parallel efforts must be made to encourage journalism education projects — real, live, degree-granting programs — on campuses where they do not currently exist. Yes, this must include the extraordinarily high number of religious colleges and universities that offer little or nothing for students interested in entering this field. Right now, it is much easier to study marketing, public relations or video production on “conservative” campuses than it is to study any discipline linked to reporting the news.

Here’s the bottom line: I am convinced that the critics of mainstream journalism are doing little or nothing to improve mainstream journalism.

Will business leaders, politicos, philanthropists, religious leaders, educators, think-tank directors, denominational bureaucrats and others who shape opinions and life in moral and culturally conservative circles make attempts to interact with and critique the mainstream press, rather than merely blasting away in bitter shouting matches?

Will they realize that the power of the press is built into the very foundations of America’s public life and, thus, is worthy of respect, if not admiration?

You see, how we answer these questions depends on the ultimate goal. It depends on whether the goal is to compete in the marketplace of American journalism or to avoid it, to take part in its debates or to flee to safer ground. How we answer these questions also depends on whether or not we believe that the craft of journalism truly matters.

No one needs to deny that there are major problems in the marketplace of American journalism. Journalistic standards of fairness, balance and even accuracy are under attack — from the left and from the right. But I, for one, am not willing to say that the journalistic canons are no longer relevant. I am not willing to say that it is time to give up on the American model of journalism.

And it is impossible to accuse the news media elites of journalistic heresies if we, too, are journalistic heretics.


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