C11: Reporters get some religions

religionsIt would be hard to pick up the big newspapers right now and try to argue that the major, elite media are not trying to "get religion" right now. It's like the editors have all walked the aisle at the President Barack Obama revival and made professions of faith. Which leads me to another review of that new book from the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life's new book, "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." This book is directly linked to the mission of this weblog and, as you can tell from the title, we know that there are reporters who do get religion, because we are focusing on case studies linked to times when journalists failed get religion.

However, the crew over at the Culture11 website ran an edgy essay the other day by the conservative journalist Les Sillars, who teaches journalism at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. The headline: "Target Practice -- Why journalists won't get religion anytime soon." At one point, Sillars voices an argument often heard in conservative religious circles, which is that journalists tend to mess up religion news because they are prejudiced against religion and, to be specific, against Christianity.

This viewpoint was voiced at a forum promoting the book, which led to an exchange with Amy Sullivan of Time, who argued that her success at that magazine shows that there is a new openness and respect for Christians in many newsrooms. Sillars notes:

In a way, her answer misses the point -- not to question Ms. Sullivan's talents as a journalist, but I suspect TIME hired her in part because she is the right kind of evangelical: pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and a former Democratic operative best known for a recent book on how Democrats can sell the Democratic Party platform to evangelicals. In any case, her rise does not prove how media elites feel, one way or another, about evangelicals whose beliefs are more conventional.

This isn't to say that the average editor is actively "anti-religion" or even "anti-Christian." As Mark Silk pointed out more than a decade ago in a book called Unsecular Media, religion that is tolerant and non-judgmental and not inclined to disrupt society gets very positive coverage. (For example, "United Methodist Church Opens Soup Kitchen." Or, "American Anglicans Take Stand in Favor of Gay Marriage.") The religion journalists prefer, he wrote, "is domestic and generous and friendly, not revolutionary or hostile to the culture at large."

Indeed, many reporters share with "progressive" denominations and faiths a vision of the nature of God (loving, tolerant and non-judgmental), the nature of humanity (basically good), and how society should be (open, malleable, and inclusive).

But many reporters are deeply suspicious about certain brands of religion, particularly those asserting that a loving God saves sinners but also punishes sin; that Scriptures are authoritative and that trust in them is reasonable; and that humanity is created in God's image but that the human heart can be the source of great evil. Such people, they suspect, are not merely wrong, but dangerous, as if being religious is perfectly fine, but actually believing in its tenets is objectionable.

Now, take a deep, cleansing breath and read on. You see, this point actually reminded me of a rather famous essay on a related topic, Jay Rosen's "Journalism Is Itself a Religion" at his PressThink website. The New York University professor wrote this piece to mark the birth of The Revealer, another blog that looks at mainstream coverage of religion news.

Rosen takes a look at at column I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service in which I interviewed veteran journalist William Proctor, author of a book entitled "The Gospel According to the New York Times."

This gets rather complex, so read carefully. Better yet, click here and go to Rosen's text to read this passage, with the advantage of his many hyperlinks to source material (most of which still work). To make matters more complex, this passage opens with a reference to a much debated New York Times article by David Samuels, entitled "The Making of a Fugitive," which can still be read by clicking here.

blindspot21So we have layers on top of layers. But here goes. It helps to know that the subhead on this section of the essay reads, "The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy." This is long, but essential reading (with me changing some punctuation in a futile attempt to capture the bloc quote structure):

Here and there in the discussion of religion "in" the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: "It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy," wrote David Samuels.

This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

"This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist's convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the 'world that most of us inhabit' cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages."

Yet here is the part that intrigued me:

"But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward 'fundamentalists.' Thus, when listing the 'deadly sins' that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns 'the sin of religious certainty.'

In other words, it's against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being 'closed' to other traditions and their truth claims -- specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

The apparent orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies is a philosophical puzzle in liberalism since John Locke. Journalists cannot be expected to solve it. However, they might in some future professional climate (which may be around the corner) come to examine the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism -- how to do it, name it, explain it, uphold it, and protect it -- for that orthodoxy does exist. And it does not always have adequate answers.

Now, I am sure that Sillars and Rosen would disagree on many matters related to religion and journalism. However, I think Sillars would say a hearty "amen" after reading that passage.

Is Rosen right? Are many journalists driven by the "Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy," a creed that makes it hard for them to do fair, accurate, balanced coverage -- note, not public relations -- of the religious beliefs and actions of traditional religious believers?

Read both essays again. There is much here to chew on, looking for common ground between these voices on the journalistic left and right.

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