From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed: The accuracy and fairness debate rolls on

I have been using the term "Kellerism" even more than normal, as of late, usually with a URL attached pointing toward a collection of GetReligion discussions of this reference to former New York Times editor Bill Keller.

Perhaps we need to pause and revisit this topic for a moment, in light of discussions of the state of American journalism in the wake of the 5-4 Obergefell decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. In particular, we will be hearing from GetReligion emeritus M.Z. Hemingway. Our own Bobby Ross, Jr., just took a look at a essay on this topic.

But back to Kellerism. One of the links in that URL collection links to the first of two essays marking GetReligion's 10th anniversary. Those seeking more materials on this topic should also read my original "On Religion" column -- "God and The New York Times, once again" -- focusing on some 2011 remarks by Keller (see the video at the top of this post). At the top of that column I note:

When it comes to the daily news, the recently retired editor of The New York Times has decided there is news and then there is news about religion and social issues.
When covering debates on politics, it's crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.
"We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper. ... We write about evolution as a fact. We don't give equal time to Creationism."
Moderator Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, jokingly shushed his guest and added: "You may not be in the right state for that."
Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."

And there is the key point, centering on the words "Aside from."

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."
The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage. However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America's hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That's all.

I bring this up, yet again, to stress that this topic is actually old news that is now influencing new news. Thus, it wasn't really all that surprising -- journalistically speaking -- when the editorial board of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., proclaimed:

“As a result of Friday’s ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will no longer accept, nor will it print, op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage. ..."

At that point, the newspaper was buried in email and telephone calls. Opinions editor John L. Micek later noted that -- even as many journalists in his newsroom celebrated their victory at the high court -- it seemed that some readers were not as jubilant.

Yes, this seemed to have something to do with religion. Thus, he wrote:

I fully recognize that there are people of good conscience and of goodwill who will disagree with Friday's high court ruling. They include philosophers and men and women of the cloth whose objections come from deeply held religious and moral convictions that are protected by the very same First Amendment that allowed me to stick my foot in my mouth on Friday. They are, and always will be, welcome in these pages, along with all others of goodwill, who seek to have an intelligent and reasoned debate on the issues of the day.

Thus, the newspaper's editorial-page policy on this subject now reads:

As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage. These unions are now the law of the land. And we will not publish such letters and op-Eds any more than we would publish those that are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic.
We will, however, for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds on the high court's decision and its legal merits. The march of progress is often slow, but it is always steady.

Once again, that concerns the status of editorial-page content. The real question, of course, is the status of the newspaper's approach to covering hard, daily news. Surely the editors realize that this episode will raise questions for many readers in the very religious region that is central Pennsylvania?

In short, Micek stated a new policy that he would "for a limited time" allow editorial-page debate on Obergefell and, thus, the evolving state of religious liberty in this land. Is it safe to say that, in the news pages, the newspaper's hard-news journalists will be reticent to offer fair and accurate coverage of citizens -- most of them religious believers -- whose views on marriage and family are out of bounds?

After all, why offer fair coverage of those who "are racist, sexist or anti-Semitic"? Take that, Pope Francis and the U.S. Catholic bishops. Take that, the Rev. Billy Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention. Take that, traditional Muslims. Take that, Orthodox Jews. Take that, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Take that, well, billions of people who accept and want to follow (as in "free exercise") thousands of years of teachings of various world religions.

That brings me to the recent work of M.Z. on this hot topic, including her CNN appearance -- click here to see that -- responding to remarks by BuzzFeed legal editor Chris Geidner, who is openly gay, about his ability to cover the court's decision in an accurate and objective manner. Of course, he was covering this news event for a site that immediately began using rainbow-graphics in its social media graphics and, most symbolically, its Facebook logo.

In a piece at The Federalist dissecting the court's dissents in this case, M.Z. noted the obvious concerning much of the news coverage of this case:

Lost in the celebration was even a slight journalistic comprehension of what the Court had done, much less a critical analysis of same. ...
Let’s remind ourselves that for years, now, the media have acted as cheerleaders for same-sex marriage. At best, they’ve ignored concerns from much of the country that redefining marriage to include same-sex couples could lead to grave threats to religious freedom. At worst, they’ve disparaged critics and skeptics of marriage redefinition as the worst kind of bigots. Many journalists, including some at the Washington Post, New York Times, NPR and other major outlets, put word out that they did not believe opponents of marriage redefinition needed to be covered fairly, shunning them as beneath contempt. In recent months, the media engaged in anti-religious liberty campaigns, hunting for heretics in state-based battles of sexual liberty vs. religious freedom.

It is important to note that, way back in the early 1980s, major figures in mainstream journalism -- such as the late George Cornell of the Associated Press -- were already talking about the impact of elite, urban newsroom norms on the coverage of religion news. Issues linked to sexuality were already crucial to this debate.

In my 1983 cover story for The Quill, I noted:

The Connecticut Life survey found that 85 percent of the public considers adultery morally wrong. The Lichter-Rothman study found only 15 percent of the media elite consider adultery morally wrong. Similar splits occur on other "morality" questions.

Does this affect basic journalism?

In another piece for The Federalist, MZ spotlighted a crucial quote on journalism values from BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith:

“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”

This is, of course, essentially what Keller said in his Austin remarks. But back to Smith for a moment, continuing with MZ's train of thought in which she argues in favor of old-school coverage that is balanced, accurate and fair to people on both sides of this, and other, debates in America's tense public square:

Maybe the standards guide should define these issues a bit more. Does it consider the right to end an unborn life a “women’s rights” issue on which there are not two sides? Or what, exactly? What would be an example of a story on which there are not two sides? What does LGBT equality mean, even? It’s unclear, beyond the cheering for Obergefell that Smith justified by referring to the standards guide.
What would it even mean to say that there are not two sides on an issue that was literally just decided on a 5-4 vote? How does BuzzFeed explain to its readers what that number four represents?

Wait, this gets better (aided by MZ's hilarious use of BuzzFeed-ian GIFs):

New York’s highest court issued a ruling on the same issue as Obergefell in 2006. It looked at virtually the same constitutional issues as Obergefell did and rather than discovering a foundational right to same-sex marriage, it concluded that if the legislature wanted to change the law, it could, but that defining marriage as the union of husband and wife made tons of sense. ...
By a 4-2 majority, the Court of Appeals found that the State Legislature, in laws dating back nearly 100 years, intended to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman, and that the Legislature had a rational basis for doing so…
The majority decision, written by Judge Robert S. Smith, found that limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sexes was based on legitimate societal goals, primarily the protection and welfare of children. It could well be argued, he said, that children are better off raised by a biological mother and father, rather than by a gay or lesbian couple.
Wait, what was the name of that judge?
Yep, none other than Ben Smith’s own father.

Back to the present. In a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, Smith the younger makes his case, in so many words, for journalists openly dropping the American model of the press and then declaring how their biases affect their coverage. In effect, he is calling for a return to the older European model of the press.

Read the transcript carefully, as he discusses reactions to BuzzFeed's open declaration of support for gay rights:

BS: I don’t really think there, I mean, I guess I don’t really think there was much of a controversy, or at least I didn’t see. There were like, I’ve been tweeting with three people today -- Tim Carney and a guy named, just, I mean, but I’m not sure like three or four people make a controversy. But I think we have, we drafted and published a Standards Guide and an Ethics Guide several months ago, and I think we’ve been wrestling with something I’m sure you think about a lot, which is, although I think I probably come down somewhere a bit differently from you, which is you know, is it possible to, look, what is the tradition that used to be called kind of objective journalism, mainstream media journalism, the tradition the New York Times and the Washington Post come out of, which is the tradition I come out of? You know, how do you do that in a way that, you know, that’s honest with your readers? And I think you know, there’s always been, for a long time, been this debate both on the right and on the left saying come on, you guys, stop lying, don’t conceal your opinions. We know you have real opinions. And at the same time, of course, everyone has a set of implicit opinions about, you know, you don’t have to say, Hugh, that like you oppose racism and that you favor free speech. Those are obviously baked into your coverage, just as much as they’re baked into the New York Times’ coverage.

In other words, Kellerism is here, it's the new norm, get used to it?

Smith does, in that interview, note that there are Christians in his newsroom, which may or may not add balance to his site's coverage on some crucial questions:

BS: We do have, yes, but I also think, second, that newsroom diversity is like you know, it’s really important in having people of faith and particularly religious Christians in newsroom is important, yes, and we do. And I think that’s an important perspective.

Why is intellectual diversity important, if these debates only have one side worthy of news coverage? Or is the BuzzFeed policy -- as a news site, not as an editorial site like or a million others -- to only hire Christians whose beliefs are compatible with its own doctrines?

Just asking.

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