Equality Rides with (Washington Post) Style

cbc 021You may wonder, in a few seconds, where this post is going and why it features photographs from recent Soulforce Equality Ride events. Hang in there with me. I have my reasons. But first I want to start with a very honest private letter from a GetReligion reader named Tim J. It touches several bases and deserves to be read. Please note that I have added some of my own links in his text, as a way of starting the dialogue:

Reading your recent "guilt" entry, I was reminded again of how you struggle to remind people that this blog is about media reporting on religion, while so many of your readers (including myself) are more interested in the religion stories themselves. I think I know the reason: Conservatives of my generation tend to take it as axiomatic that not only is the media liberal, it is irredeemably so. I read Shaw's abortion bias series from 1990 and look at the situation two decades later and don't see any progress. Between that and Linda Greenhouse, I would actually rather (and in fact do) read Daily Kos than CBS, if only because it doesn't insult me by pretending to be objective.

I don't even view this as any sort of great liberal conspiracy. I just think that media men are so surrounded by people of like opinions that they're not even aware that these views are not necessarily normative. More damningly, though, I don't think they're even interested in expanding their horizons enough to understand where conservatives are coming from. I think that I'm not the only who feels that the only way we'll get a fair shake is when the traditional media is discredited enough that people don't listen to it anymore.

I think it's pretty plain that you are not of that opinion, and you want to fix the system instead of tossing it out for a new one. So here is an entry I would very much like to see you write: what are your reasons for hoping that things will change? What positive steps have you seen media outlets taking to correct their ingrained liberal culture? What's the good news?

So, Tim, if you chase even half of those links you'll know a lot more about where I am coming from. You should also read a book chapter that I wrote on this subject, the original title of which was "Journalism strategies in a hostile marketplace."

I would love to write a book on this topic someday (Proposed title: Why God Loves Journalists: And Why Too Many Christians Do Not). I think the key is that people keep tossing the "objectivity" bomb back and forth at one another. Many conservatives -- secular and religious -- are much too quick to throw in the intellectual towel and flee into the safe niches of European-style publications of news and opinion that preach to their various choirs. Meanwhile, there are voices on the left that are beginning to say that, yes indeed, there are in fact issues in which the debate is over and there is no need to quote voices on the opposite side of some of America's hottest cultural debates.

But let's not talk about the left, right now. There are plenty of people working in our best newspapers and magazines who are still committed to the basic values of what history books often call the "American model of the press." The key is not whether individual people -- left or right -- can unplug their brains and somehow be "objective." The issue here is whether we will have newsrooms that contain enough intellectural and cultural diversity to be fair and accurate when it comes time to cover stories rooted in hot, divisive questions about religion, morality and culture. Thus, that book chapter ends with this challenge for conservatives who, at the moment, are just as in love with "European" journalism as, well, Greenhouse seems to be.

You know things are messed up when conservatives start playing the "Golly, things are better in Europe" card.

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.

So why be optimistic, in an age in which digital technologies and the Web make it easier and easier for the advocates of advocacy journalism to put their views in print?

dordt2For starters, this digital revolution is not bad. All kinds of people, coming from a wide variety of worldviews, are getting to serve as unofficial "reader's representatives" these days. Amen. I think this is forcing editors and publishers to listen -- whether they want to or not -- to a wider spectrum of their customers and/or critics. GetReligion, obviously, is one such weblog, with our own traditional-faith yet pro-journalism perspective. No one here is opposed to The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, World, Salon or publications of their ilk. The question is what happens to the mainstream.

And right now, the mainstream is nervous.

Cable news is slicing and dicing the broadcast audience. Local newspaper circulation numbers are declining to the point that some people are talking about readers -- as in people who read news at all -- becoming a "niche" in the general public. Comedy Central is a news channel, all of a sudden. Katie Couric is the face of CBS Evening News. Is that where we want to go with public discourse in this nation? Do we want the journalistic mainstream to embrace the European model in city after city and in our national news outlets? Or do we want to make an economic and intellectual case, one rooted in respect -- not hatred -- for the press and basic journalism?

I know it is frustrating to pick up great newspapers and see great examples of classic, accurate, balanced American journalism printed on the same page as one-sided works of European, advocacy journalism. These are confusing times.

If you don't believe me, consider two very different stories in The Washington Post, one printed in the news pages and the other in the rather New Journalism, European environment of the Style section. I don't want to get into too many details here, because the organization at which I teach -- the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities -- is deeply involved in the entire Equality Ride story. This is why the only Scripps Howard column I have written on this topic was a narrowly focused piece on the Rev. Mel White of Soulforce (I have known him since his ghostwriter days) and his articulate views on free speech.

First read the original news piece from last year, when the Soulforce leaders met with the CCCU. Note the headline: "A Drive for Understanding -- Gays, Colleges Hope Tour Helps Dispel Mutual Stereotypes."

Now read the Style piece from last week, when the Equality Riders came to Patrick Henry College (which is not a member of the CCCU) in Northern Virginia. Note the headline: "Young, Gay Christians, On a Bumpy Bus Ride -- At Evangelical College, Protesters Target Culture That Excludes Them."

Read the two stories then ask yourself a basic question: Would the people covered in both of these stories recognize their own words, their own beliefs in these texts? Would they say that their points of view were shown respect? Would people on both sides say that these stories were complete, that articulate voices on both sides were allowed to share information? Do the facts ring true? Would people on both sides say that both stories were balanced and accurate?

Read these two stories, taken from the same newspaper.

So which form of journalism do you want to advocate in the mainstream, in the dominate providers of news and information in our culture? Which model do you want to praise? To support? To encourage mainstream journalists to use as best they can?

Photos from Equality Ride 2007.

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