To Bill Keller (c/o The New York Times)

NYTimesTowerDear Mr. Bill Keller: Each semester, in the very first class session at the Washington Journalism Center, I have my students read the New York Times self-study document from 2005 entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust (.pdf)." Then I require them to carefully read your response, "Assuring Our Credibility (.pdf)."

The passage that always hits home for me, as a professor who works with young journalists from a wide variety of Christian campuses, is this one:

First and foremost we hire the best reporters, editors, photographers and artists in the business. But we will make an extra effort to focus on diversity of religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.

Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported -- and understood -- in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. ...

I also endorse the committee's recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.

My students find this commitment encouraging, coming from the leader of the most powerful newsroom in America. It helps them understand that if they achieve journalistic excellence, they can help provide intellectual and cultural diversity in a news industry that seriously needs to convince readers -- on the left and right -- that it is committed to accuracy, fairness and balance.

This commitment is especially important if, during the current crisis in American journalism, the Times seeks to find more readers by reaching a broader, more diverse, national audience -- even in, dare I say, pews in the American heartland.

It is in that spirit that I want to point you toward a recent story in your newspaper that, frankly, doesn't even grasp the role that religion plays in the lives of many people in the state of New York and, perhaps, in some shadowy corners of New York City. The story focuses on that 38-to-24 vote in the New York State Senate rejecting a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.

The defeat shocked supporters, of course, because many legislators clearly were afraid to confess beforehand that they supported a traditional definition of marriage. What was going on? What happened during the debate? We are told this:

The state's Roman Catholic bishops had consistently lobbied for its defeat, however, and after the vote released a statement applauding the move.

"Advocates for same-sex marriage have attempted to portray their cause as inevitable," Richard E. Barnes, the executive director of the New York State Catholic Conference, said in the statement. "However, it has become clear that Americans continue to understand marriage the way it has always been understood, and New York is not different in that regard. This is a victory for the basic building block of our society."

Several supporters said they felt they had been betrayed by senators who promised to vote yes but then, reluctant to support an issue as politically freighted as same-sex marriage if they could avoid it, switched their votes on the floor when it became evident the bill would lose.

When I read this report, I thought to myself: I wonder if the religious issues that surround this issue surfaced in any meaningful way during the debate in the legislature? It's obvious that Catholic Church would have been involved, behind the scenes. But what about other groups?

As it turns out, 17 senators rose to speak in favor of the legislation -- with only one speaking against it. That's an amazing ratio.

custom_1245221323585_Bill_KellerThen again, that one rebel voice turned out to represent the winning side. It was a Democrat from the Bronx, a Pentecostal minister named Ruben Diaz Sr. He was the subject of a recent Times mini-profile, so I know that his viewpoints are well known to some of your editors.

As it turns out, a Baptist Press report on the debate in the New York Senate contained some interesting material about the debate. I realize that this is a conservative news service for a niche market. However, it certainly appears that religion played a major role in the debate.

Does anyone in your newsroom get Baptist Press? Just asking. It's free, so it wouldn't stretch the budget in these tight times. Here's a piece of that report:

A Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, Diaz has been the most vocal opponent from the start. When he learned ... the vote was set to take place, he went to his office to pray. ...

Diaz, the second speaker during the debate, set the tone early for the discussion about religion. "Gay marriage," he said, "is not only opposed by us evangelicals.

"All the major religions in the world also oppose it," Diaz, who grew up in Puerto Rico, said. "The Jewish religion opposes it. The Muslim religion opposes it. The Catholic religion opposes it."

No one else, though, defended a traditional view of the Bible. Senate President Malcolm Smith said "the Bible does not say same-sex marriage is wrong." Sen. Velmanette Montgomery told her colleagues that because her faith tradition believes that living together before marriage is sin, the chamber should legalize relationships for homosexuals because "we do not want them to live in sin." Sen. Eric Adams said religion was important to him but that "when I enter these [Senate] doors, my Bible stays out." Smith, Montgomery and Adams are all Democrats.

Diaz got in the last word on religion, telling Adams, "The Bible should never be left out. You should carry your Bible all the time."

That sounds like a rather tense and important exchange, especially since it appears that Diaz had more support in the chamber than anyone expected. What role did religion, ethnicity and culture play in some of those votes?

Here's my point: I know that it's important for journalists to wrestle with realities far from from their own neighborhood. However, in this case, may I suggest that the Times try exploring some corners of its own city?

You see, there are Pentecostal Democrats from Puerto Rico who live in the Bronx. There are booming evangelical and charismatic churches in Brooklyn. The Korean Presbyterians are interesting people, too. There are Latino and African-American Catholics, as well. I suggest visiting a Haitian parish.

I could go on. My point is that I think the Times must continue to wrestle with the cultural and intellectual diversity in its city, its state and, yes, its nation, if it is going to reach a broad, strong, growing audience. You will find that there are new readers out there and faith plays a major role in their lives, even if the ancient details of this faith clash with the editorial policies of your newspaper.

I read your newspaper and sincerely wish you well. I urge you to read your own words again and then carry on. To understand how the world really works, journalists must try to understand the often messy details of religion. Please keep trying. Don't settle for producing journalism catering to the views of readers who share -- as you said -- your own "predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation."

Amen.

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