The NYT's religion diaries

As a woman takes the helm at The New York Times for the first time this fall, many will be watching whether Jill Abramson takes the paper in a new direction editorially. The New Yorker's profile of Abramson has been sitting in my Instapaper queue for a while, and it was worth a weekend read to consider future issues the new executive editor will face.

[Abramson's] family so revered the Times that at one point they had two copies delivered to their home. “The New York Times was our religion,” Abramson has said more than once.

This quote was included in the initial Times web story about Abramson's appointment, but it was later removed for the print version. The profile doesn't go into Abramson's personal faith, so it's unclear whether that will change the level of importance she puts on religion coverage. For instance, former executive editor Bill Keller might see religion as alien, baggage or a Trojan horse, but he wants it covered.

The profile revealed other elements about Abramson's background, how she came to leadership at the paper and how she plans to take the paper forward.

Abramson says that her editorship will be marked by more investigative reporting, attention to politics, cultural coverage, and searching for the story behind the public-relations announcement.

Of course, we're wondering where religion coverage fits into these categories, since probing faith angles often leads reporters to the motivations behind a particular event or person's actions. Keller offered some background on what she Abramson would bring to editorial meetings.

Keller and Abramson came to treat their different interests and temperaments as complementary. “It was great to have her as a partner,” Keller says. “Jill took newsroom meetings to an extraordinary level with her thoroughness. She would come in most mornings having read everything.” She pressed editors and reporters to offer more context and to delve into people’s motives.

Again, religion can often be found in motivations. Questions about liberal bias is one area Abramson will likely continue to face.

An editorial voice in news stories adds credence to the frequent charge that the Times’ news reporting often displays a liberal bias—a critique that will not be lessened by the elevation of a woman brought up in a liberal-Democratic household on the West Side of Manhattan who worked for liberal Southern Democrats and wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.

Abramson recognizes that the paper has an "insular urban bias."

She fervently believes that the Times is an equal-opportunity prober of Democrats as well as of Republicans. Asked about her own upbringing, she responds, “I’m often the one who raises the point in page-one meetings that our mix of stories is too urban in outlook, too parochial. All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America.”

Tmatt took on the question of whether the newspaper could be considered liberal, looking at some commentary from former executive editor Keller.

In the comments section of that post, reader "Passing By" wrote, "I really would be interested in links to Times articles that are actually respectful of traditional Christians, and not just when we run soup kitchens. I saw an article like that once on the Times website (meant to bookmark it and didn’t), and am sure there are others."

I would be curious what Passing By means when he says "respectful of traditional Christians." Does he mean positive coverage? Hopefully it's not news that Christians (or another those in other religious traditions) are doing good deeds. Perhaps the stories don't always land on the front page, but there are some reporters and columnists to keep an eye on.

We read just about anything Laurie Goodstein writes. Occasionally religion is covered well within political coverage from reporters like Sheryl Gay Stolberg. For whatever reason, much of the Times coverage of Christianity specifically seems to appear in its editorial pages with columnists like Mark Oppenheimer, Samuel Freedman and Ross Douthat. Yes, there was that recent simplistic op-ed on "The Evangelical Rejection of Reason" (NYT, the 1980s called. It wants its evangelicalism back.) But the regular columnists regularly use their spaces to reveal new trends related to religion, culture and/or politics.

We'll be watching to see whether the amount and quality of religion coverage changes under Abramson, who may or may not have a personal interest in the subject. We do know from the profile that she is quite interested in her pets. She recently published the book, “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.”

In it, she describes the death of the family’s first dog, Buddy, and says that her sister calls Scout “needier” than Buddy. “But we were needy, too,” she writes. “After the departure of our children, Buddy’s death, and my accident, our home lives had become a little narrow and thin. ... Bringing into our empty nest another living being to make happy and take care of helped put our relationship back on its natural axis.”

Apparently not everyone is pleased with the new book.

“Being executive editor is a full-time job,” one masthead editor demurs. “You shouldn’t be writing a book.” Especially one called “The Puppy Diaries.” Abramson admits that she is self-conscious about her dog book being published during her second month as executive editor of the august New York Times. Say what you will about the grayer days of the Times in mid-century, but it was always hard to imagine James Reston writing a book about a beloved household pet.

The quoted masthead editor might be taking himself/herself a bit too seriously, since I'm guessing her book might resonate with the way many people feel about their own pets. As long as Abramson recognizes that people feel as passionately about religion as she does about her puppies, The Times could be in good hands.

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