Are reporters too stupid to get religion?

IDDONchurchteresamikeWhen Mother Teresa comes to town for an ecumenical prayer service, all kinds of people are going to show up. That's what happened in Denver back in 1989, when the tiny nun came to town to pray for peace and for the poor in that city. The list of local clergy taking part was very long, drawing a Judeo-Christian all-star team that included rabbis, Eastern Orthodox priests, Anglicans and Protestant clergy of every kind, from nationally known evangelicals to the mainline left. Of course, Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford -- now a cardinal at the Vatican -- was at her side to preside.

Before the event, Mother Teresa and some of the top clergy held a press conference. It was, for me, a memorable event because I asked her if she was considering opening a Missionaries of Charity convent in Denver. When I talked with her again an hour later she reminded me of that question and, in the prayer service itself, she stunned the archbishop and the crowd by announcing that she would do precisely that -- creating an AIDS hospice in urban Denver.

However, there is another reason I remember that press conference. The throng of reporters who attended included a number of local television reporters, several of whom seemed to have been assigned to the story at the last minute. One asked a simple question: Would this prayer rite include a Mass?

Mother Teresa was confused for a minute. How could they celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass with an ecumenical flock, one that included Protestants, Jews and others who were, obviously, not in communion with Rome? For starters, I thought, had the reporter not heard of the Protestant Reformation?

I thought of this story this week when several GetReligion readers posted comments about Father Richard John Neuhaus' bitting remarks at the First Things blog about the stupidity of journalists. He was inspired to write by early coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical, "God Is Love."

Here is how his post opens:

As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time talking with reporters. I usually don't mind it. It comes with the territory. With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom.

An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. "Is this something new?" she asked. "No," I said, "it's been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden." There was a long pause and then she asked, "What garden was that?" It was touching.

And so it goes. I will pass by his undocumented claim that student journalists are, as a rule, stupid. I have found, in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, that my journalism students are almost always drawn from the honor rolls. Frankly, I have no idea what Father Neuhaus is talking about and I wish he had added a hyperlink to the source of his opinion. But I will move on.

Father Neuhaus is a very witty man and you can read his remarks for yourself, if you have not already. It is interesting that he ends up, in a strange way, affirming the stance of thinkers -- most in the news industry or on the left -- who argue that bias is not at the root of the news media's struggles to "get religion." Instead of bias, he argues that journalists are simply ignorant. (I argue that clashing "worldviews" are the key.)

Neuhaus concludes:

... (Over) the years of dealing with reporters -- and, again, there are notable exceptions -- I have been led to embrace something like an Occam's razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice.

It is hard to tell if his "notable exceptions" are reporters who are biased or reporters who are not stupid.

Anyway, my story about the Mother Teresa press conference would slip nicely into the First Things commentary. Believe me, I have heard waves of similar stories through the years, and some of them will make you laugh to keep from crying. Click here to read some classics.

042803neuhausrichardjohnIf Father Neuhaus had been at the 1989 press conference, I am sure he would have rolled his eyes at the ecumenical Mass question and tucked it away in his mental humor files for future use (as I did).

However, there is a problem. That press conference included a number of reporters who were rolling their eyes, reporters who had years and years of experience on the beat and had, in a few cases, even done graduate degrees in various types of religious studies to be able to do a professional job covering complicated religion-news stories. Where do these reporters fit into Father Neuhaus' rather snarky scenario?

You see, I have met some brilliant journalists in my day. I have also met some journalists who are so dedicated that they can keep working and working on a topic until they get most of the questions answered and they get the key facts right. I have also met plenty of journalists who fit all of the good father's stereotypes. But what is his solution to this problem? Ignore reporters? Just write off the press?

I think it would help if the people who run newsrooms had the option -- as they seek intellectual diversity -- of hiring more reporters from excellent reporting and writing programs in religious colleges and universities.

Might Father Neuhaus lobby for at least a few Catholic schools in this nation to stress journalism? He could offer his praise and support for postgraduate projects -- such as those at the Poynter Instituteand the Pew Forum -- that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.

Does Father Neuhaus think this line of work is too shallow or too gritty for serious study and even theological reflection? And speaking of that "garden," is this conservative Catholic theologian arguing that some parts of God's creation are simply too fallen to be taken seriously? Is his theology putting a newsy twist on Orwell? All of God's creation is both glorious and fallen, but some parts of it -- newsrooms -- are more fallen than others? I assume not, since that would be, well, heresy.

But it is so, so easy to blast away at the press -- especially in a week in which the Western world's newspaper of record serves up headlines such as this one: "Benedict's First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy."

Say what? Wait, there was more. Here is the opening of reporter Ian Fisher's New York Times story on the new papal encyclical:

Pope Benedict XVI issued an erudite meditation on love and charity on Wednesday in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism's potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.

The encyclical, titled "God Is Love," did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics. But in gentle, often poetic language, Benedict nonetheless portrayed a tough-minded church that is "duty bound," he wrote, to intervene at times in secular politics for "the attainment for what is just."

You could spend a week in the Catholic blogosphere reading about reactions to "God Is Love" and the news coverage of its contents. I will not linger on this, since this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say, many of the reports would have put a smile on the face of Father Neuhaus, for all of the usual reasons. I will end with one comment from an email by my friend, the Catholic pop-culture scribe Roberto Rivera y Carlo:

Talk about your ideological slip showing! The lede draws not one, but, two, idiotic juxtapositions: "erudite" versus "firm" and "love and charity" versus "orthodoxy." These people really don't and can't get it, can they?

Actually, I believe that most reporters are smart enough to get it and it would be good if they tried to do so. I also think if would help if more religious leaders -- especially brilliant people like Father Neuhaus -- helped promote education and diversity in journalism, rather than merely firing shots from the sidelines.

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