Follow $$$, history, power, doctrine, etc. (UDPATED)

If there is anything that your GetReligionistas appreciate, it is people who take the nuts and bolts of religion news seriously. While this website's primary audience is mainstream journalists -- editors, reporters, producers, you name it -- we also know that we have plenty of faithful readers in academia and also in pulpits. Every now and then, someone out there produces a serious critique of this here weblog, which usually pleases us no end. This is especially true when someone offers serious and constructive criticisms -- positive and negative -- of what we do.

So with no further ado, let's turn to "Getting 'Get Religion,' " which ran recently at a blog called Magdalene's Egg. The author is "Father Anonymous," who describes himself an "an evangelical catholic priest with too much time on my hands." Looking at the context, I would assume the author is a serious Lutheran, perhaps with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America roots.

Here's what we are going to do. I have run much of the text below, beginning at the point in which he sets out to offer constructive criticism (after he has made some kind opening remarks). I am going to offer my own commentary on his critique, in a few interjections. Then, the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway will jump in and add some of her own commentary, as our resident authority on all things Lutheran.

Take it away, Father Anonymous:

So far, so good. But whence our irritation? We think it's a series of related matters:

* Because of that traditional perspective we mentioned, the GR writers often ask traditional questions, and become irritated when they can't get traditional answers. For some readers, this translates into a "conservative bias," although that's a little unfair. (To the writers. The endless stream of off-topic commenters are another matter.) The problem isn't the questions so much as the annoyance -- or, really, the insistence that a religion story has to be reported in one particular way. Which way? Read on.

Tmatt: We plead guilty to appreciating news reports that are accurate and fair to people on both sides of tense and painful debates. We are journalistic traditionalists, openly supporting the American model of the press (as opposed to the older European, advocacy-press model that is on the rise again today on the cultural right and left).

Mollie: In general, I think I might have found this critique more spot-on than Tmatt. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the criticisms land much more squarely on me than on Tmatt (more below). And before I get into the substance, I have to also thank Father Anonymous (whose real name we know from his comments here) for taking the time to put together a thoughtful critique and to do it in such an encouraging and supportive manner. If you read the whole thing, it's clear that he's making his argument with a desire to build up rather than tear down. This is a wonderful thing in the combative blogosphere. As for this particular criticism, I definitely cop to asking "traditional" questions, even if I don't mind nontraditional answers. I think in the modern climate, the more "traditional" questions are vastly more likely to be undercovered, and that's part of the niche we fill.

* GR often emphasizes doctrine as a means of understanding religious communities. This seems logical enough, since most American believers take for granted that their communities are held together by shared doctrine. We suspect that it is a red herring, which results in a tendency to overlook other factors which are just as important in American religious life. Ethnicity, law, and money come immediately to mind. The issues facing many churches, not to mention mosques and synagogues, often grow far more directly from these things than from questions of belief.

Tmatt: This largely misses the point. We place a very high emphasis on accuracy in reporting, in all areas of religious life. Religious history and doctrine simply happen to be complex areas in which many mistakes are made. Doctrine often is a strong motive for the actions that then AFFECT money, laws, people, structures, etc.

Church history and doctrines are elements of religion that contain facts. Too often, MSM folks screw them up or act as if they are mere statements of opinion.

Mollie: I agree with Tmatt, here. Who was it that said everyone is dogmatic but that only some realize they are? That's kind of how I approach this issue of doctrine. Everyone has a doctrinal approach that affects their understanding of money, law, people, structures, etc. Even in my church body, which has none of the exciting doctrinal disputes affecting many denominations, our debates about structure are really about doctrine. And I thought that the few reporters who covered our recent restructuring actually did better the better they understood the doctrinal divides on that issue. Having said all that, though, I think it goes back to what I said earlier. We have a niche here and while graduates of journalism school might have more than enough understanding of how ethnicity, law or money might factor into a story, where we see a lot of problems are the complete absence of doctrinal understanding.

* As a result, GR often seems to push for journalists to become better-informed about what a church (or whatever) teaches, something that for many of them requires a virtual re-education, but rarely suggests that reporters do in Godbeat reporting what they are trained to do in, say, political reporting: follow the money. Or the delicate ethnic questions. Or the legal ones. When pushed, they will readily acknowledge that this makes for good reporting; but we don't remember ever seeing them ask for it.

Tmatt: Hey journalists! Follow the blood, follow the money, follow the power structures, follow the history, follow whatever works. Do the normal journalistic work. Pretend that you are covering a subject that journalism takes seriously, such as sports, politics or law. It's journalism. We would never, ever suggest that doctrine alone explains anything. But -- as Father Anonymous concedes -- religious communities are almost always defined, especially in contrast with one another and during times internal schisms -- by doctrine. That's a fact.

Mollie: This one is completely my fault! Even though I've often called on reporters to "follow the money" or praised them for it, I just last week said I thought that money might not be the best angle to explore on the mosque and Koran-burning stories. I did a horrible job of making the case and I don't even agree with what I said anymore, but let me just explain where I was coming from. Here's the deal -- if you were about to build your average structure for your average religious group, would reporters dig deep on where, exactly, you got your money? I personally worry that the financial investigation of the Cordoba project is unfair and could lead to further "gotcha" reporting in other mosques and other congregations. The thing is that this is a personal hangup of mine (such as my fear that reporters do such a horrible job of covering presidents' religious views that they keep them from worshiping) and I was wrong. Even if it makes me personally uncomfortable, there is no case to be made that reporters shouldn't cover financial angles. They are, in fact, some of the best ways to explore all of the other doctrinal issues (as Eric Gorski showed well in his Prosperity Gospel series from years ago.)

* Part of the problem is that GR defines "newsworthy" largely according to what the pack reports on -- rather than according to what the pack should report on. (Apart from "ghosts," of course.) They want religion reporting to be better, but not necessarily different. So if, for example, we suggest that stories are inherently flawed if they treat the public statements of a church with hierarchical polity just like those of one with congregational polity, GR will respond, in effect, "But that's what all the stories do." True enough, but wrongly so. For example, the authority of a papal encyclical and the authority of The Baptist Faith and Message are different in nature, and congregations which disregard them stand in quite different positions relative to their parent bodies.

Tmatt: I have no IDEA where this is coming from. I could not possibly agree more with the content of this section (especially the contrast between a Vatican document and the Southern Baptist document). The problem, I guess, is that GetReligion tends to criticize the coverage that exists. That's our job.

Mollie: Actually, the first part of the above excerpt was my favorite criticism. And I think that's because I agree with it. One thing I wish was that I could write more about huge areas that are neglected or undercovered, rather than just looking at problems of those things that do receive coverage. This ranges from something relatively small (such as the fact that my denomination had an incredibly significant event -- the installation of our new president and other officers -- this past week that was completely ignored by the media) to something much larger (such as a broader look at some of the larger clashes between free speech and respect for religion). As for the rest, it seems odd to me because I feel like that's mostly what we do here.

* At its very worst, all this means that GR sometimes shares the signal flaw of journalism in the internet-and-cable age, which is the tacit belief that "news" is principally, or even significantly, the sharing of opinions, rather than the revealing of hidden facts.

Tmatt: Wow. That is precisely the opposite of what GR consistently argues. See, for example, our steady criticism of that element of the "On Faith" project at the Washington Post.

Mollie: Right. In fact, this is sometimes how we describe what we do -- encouraging journalists to treat religion less as something foggy and nebulous and more as a driver of major news.

* Bottom line: GR does outstanding work, but it could up its game by broadening its understanding of religion's connection's to the rest of human activity. Even writing all this, we feel a bit guilty. So we'll say it again: Good website. Smart people. We like it so much, we just want it to be a tiny bit better.

Tmatt: Thank you for your kind words and your jabs. Please keep reading. Closely.

Mollie: Thank you! I keep hoping that as I get more time I'll be able to do some of this broadening. I have learned so much in the years since I began this work and I have definitely made my share of mistakes. Some gentle nudges are appreciated.

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