Kristof on religion, press: More diversity!

GetReligion readers may have noticed that Nicholas D. Kristof experienced a fit of journalistic paranoia this week, one inspired, in large part, by a topic close to the concerns of this blog. Basically, he is scared stiff -- with just cause, in my opinion -- that the American public now views the MSM as a bunch of biased jerks, or worse. Thus the headline: "A Slap in the Face." Here is a key passage in his New York Times column, which began with reports about reporters clashing with courts that are not friendly to First Amendment claims.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center, "Trends 2005," is painful to read. The report says that 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago. In this kind of environment, it's not surprising that journalists are headed for jail. The safety net for American journalism throughout history has been not so much the First Amendment -- rather, it's been public approval of the role of the free press. Public approval is our life-support system, and it is now at risk.

Since 1973, the National Opinion Research Center has measured public confidence in 13 institutions, including the press. All of the other institutions have generally retained a good measure of public respect, but confidence in the press has fallen sharply since 1990.

Many mainstream reporters are going to say that Kristof is off his rocker and needs to calm down. Others simply believe that the media-bias claims are rooted in political, cultural or even religious differences. Right-wingers just hate the news media. So what else is new? In due time, all of those conservative people will grow up and get smart. They probably don't read newspapers anyway. Right?

The problem, noted Kristof, is that lots of people on the left are mad, too. And some of the people at Pew think this chasm has as much to do with class conflicts as with politics and religion. I wrote on this topic last summer and featured this quote on the subject from conservative scribe James Leo at U.S. News & World Report:

"When I was at the New York Times, the leadership was full of people who had gone to the wrong schools and fought their way up with brains and talent," he said. "Two desks away from mine was McCandlish Phillips, a born-again Christian who read the Bible during every break. . . . Phillips was a legendary reporter, rightly treated with awe by the staff, but I doubt he would be hired by most news organizations today. He prayed a lot and had no college degree."

This leads us directly to the most controversial quotation in the Kristof column, one I am sure has people inside the New York Times building questioning his sanity. Clearly, this man's willingness to talk with religious people and cultural conservatives is getting to him!

In effect, he says the Times needs to find some more people like McCandlish Phillips -- that is, if it wants to lay claim to being a national newspaper of record.

More openness, more willingness to run corrections, more ombudsmen, more acknowledgement of our failings -- those are the kinds of steps that are already under way and that should be accelerated. It would help if news organizations engaged in more outreach to explain themselves, with anchors or editors walking readers through such minefields as why we choose to call someone a "terrorist," or how we wield terms like "pro-life" or "pro-choice."

We also need more diverse newsrooms. When America was struck by race riots in the late 1960's, major news organizations realized too late that their failure to hire black reporters had impaired their ability to cover America. In the same way, our failure to hire more red-state evangelicals limits our understanding of and ability to cover America today.

You may want to read that again.

That statement sounded wise to Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher, but he does not have his hopes up. Here is a long clip from his reaction to the Kristof piece, published on the Dallas Morning News editiorial-page blog. Sadly, I cannot link to it directly, because the technical crew that set up this blog seems to have little understanding of how blogs actually work and interact. Anyway, here is Dreher about the Kristof call for diversity:

He's entirely correct, but that will never happen. Some people are more diverse than others. In 1997, when I worked for another newspaper, I got into a heated conversation with the woman who ran the diversity training program at the paper. She was awfully proud of herself for having worked to put together a newsroom that looked like our readership area. I told her she shouldn't be so smug, because though they had a good mixture of men, women, whites, blacks, Hispanics, and on and on, the diversity was largely skin deep. Most everybody in that newsroom was middle class, had gone to the same kinds of universities, held more or less the same general cultural and political outlook. . . .

"There are lots of Pentecostals in this county, lots of them black or Hispanic," I said. "But you won't find them in this newsroom, except working as secretaries or janitors. This county is 40 percent registered Republican. How accurately do you think they are represented in this newsroom?" Etc. She had no idea what I was talking about, and dismissed me condescendingly as a Grumpy White Male. Wasn't going to have her ideological apple cart upset.

"Amen." But let me add one more thing about this call for ideological diversity. American journalism will be improved by people who love journalism, not people who hate journalism. Too many religious and cultural conservatives hate the news media and, truth be told, are more interested in public relations than tough, accurate news stories that try to deal with both sides of controversial issues. How many conservative colleges and universities have solid journalism programs? How many have college newspapers that get to, oh, take notes during trustee meetings? Just asking.

This is a blind spot with two sides, Mr. Kristof. The press does not respect the valid role that religion plays in American life. And many people in the pews do not respect the valid role played by the press. We have to get to work on both sides of that equation.

End of sermon.

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