Old questions on news and "On Faith"

Question Mark on Stained Glass 02 01The new post by the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc about the Obama family, National Episcopal Cathedral and the theological musings by the seeker-friendly agnostic Sally Quinn reminded me of something I have been meaning to do for some time now. Veteran GetReligion readers may remember that I have always had questions (lots of questions, actually) about the all-opinion, all of the time nature of the "On Faith" site at the Washington Post. Thus, I once wrote:

It has become clear that "On Faith" is, in reality, a gigantic and very ambitious op-ed page for discussions and arguments about issues, beliefs and feelings linked to religion. What is not clear is what all of this has to do with ... coverage of religion news. I, for one, really wish that there was some way for the "On Faith" site to at least -- this would cost nothing, really -- gather together all of the news reporting that takes place in the Washington Post newsroom and in its wire-service offerings (Religion News Service, for heaven's sake) and put it together in a one-stop shopping grid on the weblog. ...

That's N.E.W.S. Or is this op-ed-only approach actually the message, implying that there are no real facts to report about religious life, doctrine, history and events? That religion is, in reality, a subject in which everything is opinion and fog and that everyone should just accept that and move on?

Anyway, I said what I had to say back then. However, editors over at Trinity College's journal called "Religion in the News magazine" went and published an essay -- "Sally Gets Religion" -- that dug into the workings of the Post religion-news team (repeat, "news") and then offered the following commentary about "On Faith."

You need to read the whole thing, but here is an essential slice of the essay, which expresses concerns that are similiar to mine. Once again, the issue is why religion is a topic that deserves a sprawling multi-faith panel of experts who talk and talk and share and share and, well, that's it. Andrew Walsh writes, concerning Quinn and her intellectual circus:

Two things are worth noting about this approach. First, it's odd to empanel such an array of characters as omnibus experts, as if they all had worthwhile opinions about every conceivable religion question that might come up. At the heart of old-school journalism is the conviction that newspapers are obliged to find and quote genuine experts who have real knowledge of the matter at hand. That seems to have gone by the wayside on-line, where opinion is all.

Second, On Faith is not a conversation. A lot of programmatic statements are set down, but there's no back and forth. Everyone gets a free shot. ...

It's a novelty to have a massive "religion" section launched by so enthusiastic a journalistic entrepreneur. Is it intrinsically bad? The skeptical, uninformed, curious, suspicious, irreverent Quinn viewpoint is widely shared. And evidently there are many readers who appreciate the bouncing around from opinion to opinion, with the editorial function reduced to asking a question and then getting out of the way. There's something for everyone.

But it is troubling that in a world where journalism is experiencing a deep crisis of legitimacy, the Washington Post has launched this vast venture and endowed it with such a puny dose of journalistic ethos. There are On Faith panelists who act like journalists: Gustav Niebuhr, late of the New York Times (and Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Wall Street Journal and Washington Post) and now of Syracuse University; and Lisa Miller and Christopher Dickey of Newsweek, to name three. But even they are not bringing news to the table.

Where are the neutral, well-informed voices who rigorously report the news or comment upon it in a reasonably dispassionate (if not necessarily unopinionated) way? Will the online media be little more than a vast op-ed-cum-letters-to-the-editor venture, or will there be real, righteous religion reporting?

Great questions. Read it all.

Most of all, let me state this again. The professionals who cover religion news at the Post -- a talented crew, including some who are attached to On Faith -- need more exposure, including in this strange online frame of Quinn's making. Let's stress the news, not just a swirling storm of opinion and emotion.

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