Embracing straw people at nonNewsweek

The big news at Kurt Soller's Readback blog over at nonNewsweek comes at the very end of his Dec. 10 post.

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Anyway, Soller begins with the obvious. At least, it's obvious if you've been following the MZ Hemingway coverage here at GetReligion:

At this point, I think I can finally say that I'm surprised by the volume of comments we've received in regard to Lisa Miller's cover story about religion and gay marriage. My inbox has received more than 5,000 e-mails today, mainly from people responding to the previous post about the religious reaction to our cover story. And that's just chump change; our Web editors inbox brims with more than 26,000 missives; our CEO received more than 20,000 e-mails after a campaign organized by the American Family Association revealed his e-mail address, and the offices that handle the hand-written letters are overflowing with notes from impassioned readers, well-wishers and self-proclaimed subscription cancelers. Meanwhile, the story itself has accrued nearly 10,000 comments.

Many Christians out there are upset, for example, with nonNewsweek's assumption that only fundamentalists or even "conservative" Christians are clinging to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage. Then again, there are also plenty of fundamentalists and angry Christians who are writing in to say exactly the kinds of things that nonNewsweek editors would expect them to say. I am sure that all of the "Sodom and Gomorrah" references are providing comfort in the newsroom.

Thus, Soller says, at one point:

If you've been reading the comments, I'm sure you're aware that the viewpoints I'm re-posting are among the more polite ones.

You can read his post if you wish. It's all about religion, which is clearly what the leaders of nonNewsweek think that this is all about. But over at Beliefnet.com, our friend Steven Waldman has produced a much more interesting post about this controversy, one that assumes this is about journalism, as well as doctrine.

Check out: "Gay Marriage & Newsweek's Hail Mary." He begins with his own tenure at the former newsweekly, back in the 1980s and '90s when everyone was talking about how to be more "edgy" and "nuanced" without admitting that they wanted to go ahead and be an opinion journal. Then we read this crucial passage:

We wanted edge -- an undefined sense of non-newspaperiness -- without out being one sided or choosing a team in the culture wars. So we often substituted "attitude" for opinion, which sometimes meant more ironic detachment and an ideology of light contempt for American leadership in general. It was an awkward adolescent period.

It looks like Newsweek, in the face of an economic disaster, has decided to do the full monty, becoming an out-and-out opinion-oriented magazine.

The problem is: the readers never got the memo. Most people thought newsmagazines were supposed to be objective and have not been aware of the two decades of soul-searching about how to insert more opinion. So suddenly they wake up and this magazine that used to be balanced has come out of the closet as an overt opinion magazine.

And come out they did!

All of this leads me to write the following. I will post it here, since I have been unable to reach anyone at nonNewsweek.

Dear Mr. Kurt Soller:

It's the journalism, stupid.

I know it must be comforting to believe that all of the reaction to the Lisa Miller's doctrinal essay on your recent cover is about a clash between premodern and modern religious believers. I know that it is comforting to see conservative religious groups post the email addresses of editors, resulting in a barrage of often hateful missives from the straw people who probably stopped reading your magazine a decade or so ago.

But you also need to know that many of your readers would have welcomed a journalistic cover story that provided a lively discussion of this issue, featuring the views of liberal Christian scholars (a variety of them, since their views are not always the same) and traditional Christian scholars from a variety of viewpoints -- mainline Protestant, evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic and the like. The views of traditional Jews, Muslims and others would have made a wonderful sidebar.

Stop for a minute and think about this in terms of journalism. As MZ Hemingway of our GetReligion.org weblog said the other day, of Miller's epistle:

She never once speaks with an actual opponent of same-sex marriage. She never once speaks with someone who knows anything about the Biblical model of marriage as understood for thousands of years. This piece is disgusting, unfair and unworthy of a high school graduate. It is the opposite of thought-provoking. It's a post-frontal lobotomy exegesis of Scripture. This is journalism? This is how people are supposed to cover the news, today?

Or even to cover the news, this week.

As. In. Newsweek.

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and have been a registered Democrat as long as I can vote. In all candor, I used to be a "moderate" Southern Baptist. I have been a mainstream newspaper reporter and columnist for three decades and I now teach journalism -- mainstream, old-school journalism -- in a national network of Christian colleges and universities.

I already take and read The New Republic. I read a variety of liberal Protestant websites and wire services. It's amazing to see that your publication intends to take a less journalistic approach to religion news than, let's say, The Christian Century.

I have read Newsweek for many, many years. Should I continue to do so?

Thank you for your time.

Prof. Terry Mattingly Washington Journalism Center GetReligion.org

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