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Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

And now, an all too familiar word from America's Tweeter In Chief: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust."

This is, of course, a variation on his larger theme that the entire mainstream press is the Enemy of the People, or words to that effect. Meanwhile, "fake news" has become a phrase that (click here for a tmatt typology on this term) is all but meaningless in American public discourse.

Whenever a Trumpian Tweet storm kicks up, I always say that it's stupid to say that something as complex as the American Press is the Enemy of the People. However, after decades of reading media bias studies on moral, cultural and religious issues, I think that it’s possible to say that significant numbers of journalists in strategic newsrooms are the enemies of about 20 to 40 percent of the nation's population. This remark usually draws silence.

This brings us to the growing "trust gap" between the American press and the American people. What can be done to improve this tragic situation?

That's the subject of this weekend’s think piece, which is a Q&A at FiveThirtyEight, that includes a rather strange reference to improving religion-news coverage. The discussion opens like this: 

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s time to gaze at our navels!!! We’re chatting about the media. Everyone ready?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m not not ready.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Technically, I’m in a different field full time, academia, where we never do any navel-gazing, sooo …

micah: On this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, we talked about President Trump’s attacks on the press. Trump’s criticisms are mostly wrong, but the press as a whole (yes, it’s not great to lump all the media into one) does have a trust issue.

With that in mind, our mission for today: What resolutions do we think journalists (us and everyone else) should make to improve Americans’ faith in the press? 

Now, if you are an advocate of old-school, "American Model of the Press" journalism (stress on accuracy, balance, fairness and respect for voices on all sides of public debates), this Q&A is going to make you upset.

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Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

Got those religious-liberty news blues: Nuns with charge cards buying birth control?

So what has been going on, for the past couple of years, with the Sisters of the Poor and the federal health-care mandate requiring them, and many other religious institutions, to offer their employees health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives?

Journalists: Does anyone believe that these regulations require elderly nuns to go to a nearby drug counter, whip out the religious order's charge card, and purchase "morning-after pills"?

Is that what Attorney General Jeff Sessions meant when, in a recent speech on the rising tide of disputes about religious liberty, he said the following (which is typical of the language he has been using)?

"We’ve seen nuns ordered to pay for contraceptives. We’ve seen U.S. Senators ask judicial and executive branch nominees about their dogma -- a clear reference to their religious beliefs -- even though the Constitution explicitly forbids a religious test for public office."

What does he mean when he says the nuns have been ordered to "pay for" contraceptives, and lots of other things that violate the doctrines at the heart of their ministry?

So many questions! Was he talking about nuns using a charge card at the pharmacy? Or was Sessions discussing a requirement that they use ministry funds to offer a health-care plan that includes these benefits, requiring them to cooperate with acts that they believe are evil?

It's the latter, of course.

So what are readers to make of the language in the overture of this recent Religion News Service story (it does not carry an analysis or column label)?

(RNS) -- Standing beneath the cast aluminum statue of Lady Justice in the Department of Justice’s Great Hall, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a bold statement last week: “Many Americans have felt that their freedom to practice their faith has been under attack.”

He spoke of Catholic nuns being forced to buy contraceptives. (Actually, the Affordable Care Act required the nuns to cover the costs of contraceptives in their employees’ health plans.)

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News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

News mystery: Why so little interest in 'mainline' Protestants' liberal politicking?

The dominant religion theme in the U.S. news media across the past two years, without question, has been political fealty to Donald Trump and his works among grassroots evangelical Protestants and a like-minded coterie of old-guard clergy celebrities.   

In the same period, “mainline” Protestant groups have been ardent in politicking for leftward and anti-Trump causes, perhaps even moreso than with the typical evangelical congregation.

You would barely know this, if at all, from reading or viewing most news media reports.  

Take the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant body with 7.7 million members and millions more in overseas jurisdictions. Yes, the UMC is much in the news but only regarding its internal doctrinal dispute over whether to liberalize LGBTQ policy, per last week’s Guy Memo

UMC proclamations come from the General Board of  Church and Society, whose office hard by Capitol Hill is more than strangely warmed (to quote John Wesley) about President Donald Trump. The board has issued repeated directives urging churchgoers to phone or e-mail protests against Trump's actions to members of the House and Senate. (Years ago its former leader Jim Winkler, now National Council of Churches president, called for impeachment of President George W. Bush, a fellow Methodist, over his war policy.)        

Recently, U.S. religious bodies across the board denounced the Trump policy, now  rescinded, of separating “undocumented” immigrants from their children. But the UMC went further, urging funding cuts for immigration enforcement and border protection, and an immediate halt to all arrests and detentions of undocumented border-crossers.

The Methodists were aggrieved at the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Trump’s travel ban against seven nations, five of them majority Muslim. Rejecting the court’s reasoning and the government’s national-security rationale, the church charged that the policy “institutionalizes Islamophobia, religious intolerance, and racism.”  


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Is it crucial for reporters to know basic facts about what Jordan Peterson is saying?

Is it crucial for reporters to know basic facts about what Jordan Peterson is saying?

As I have said many times here at GetReligion, it is helpful if -- every now and then -- journalists listen to the voices of people who have been on the other side of a reporter's notepad.

This also applies, of course, to television cameras and any other form of technology used in modern newsrooms.

Thus, I would like to share a think piece that I planned to run this past weekend, only the tornado of news about Archbishop Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick got in the way and rearranged my writing plans for several days (while I was traveling, once again).

Here is the overture of a recent essay by Mark Bauerlein, published in the conservative interfaith journal First Things, that ran with this headline: "Dr. Peterson and the Reporters." This is, of course, a reference to the now omnipresent author of "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos." 

The crucial question from the other side of the notepad: Would it be a good thing if journalists actually read what Peterson has written and listened to what he is actually saying?"

 One ingredient in the astounding fame of Jordan Peterson is his capacity to show just how lazy, obtuse, unprepared, smug, knee-jerk, and prejudiced are many journalists at leading publications.

In a tendentious New York Times profile, for example, Peterson is held up for ridicule when he cites “enforced monogamy” as a rational way of fixing wayward, sometimes violent men in our society. If men had wives, they’d behave better, Peterson implied, and they wouldn’t “fail” so much. The reporter, a twenty-something from the Bay Area, has a telling response to Peterson’s position: “I laugh, because it is absurd.”

Her condescension is unearned. With no background in social psychology or cultural anthropology, she doesn’t get the framework in which Peterson speaks. But that doesn’t blunt her confidence in setting Peterson’s remarks into the category of the ridiculous. And the category of the sexist, too, as the subtitle of the profile makes clear: “He says there’s a crisis in masculinity. Why won’t women -- all these wives and witches -- just behave?” 

The problem, of course, is that Peterson is using language from his professional discipline and his own writings.

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Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)

Bias flashback: Should religious leaders risk talking to reporters? (A tmatt response)

The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr. wrote a post that included a very strong dose of opinion from a reader. The headline on that post: "Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader."

As you can tell, this is a topic linked to an assumption, and a safe one at that: Many religious leaders are scared to talk to journalists.

Now, why might that be? Why the fear? Here's that reader comment, once again:

It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.

This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

Ah, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

You see, no one here thinks that the vast majority of news-media pros are "hostile to any kind of religion." To be blunt about it, many journalists don't care enough about religion to work up a decent case of hostility about the subject. Some journalists love some forms of religion and, well, aren't fond of others.

Also, apathy is not hostility. Ignorance is not hostility, either. Some editors are scared to try to cover religion. That isn't hostility, either.

Well, Bobby told readers that I might want to respond at some point. This is rather ironic, since I am currently in Prague, lecturing at the European Journalism Institute at the historic Charles University. My third and final lecture is relevant to this discussion: "The Four Biases that Shape Religion News Coverage."

The quickest way for me to share my thoughts on this complicated topic is to cut and paste a section of an essay that I wrote long, long, long ago for The Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists. So here goes.

After nearly two decades of studying this issue, in academic settings and while working in the media, I am convinced four different forms of bias are to blame for this media blind spot.

Update! Make that four-plus decades of studying this issue!

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New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

Here's something that I didn't know before I read the rather ambitious New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why."

Apparently, if you ask young Americans why they are not choosing to have babies -- even the number of babies that they say they would like to have -- you get lots of answers about economics and trends in what could be called "secular" culture.

That's that. Religion plays no role in this question at all.

For example: In a graphic that ran with the piece, here are the most common answers cited, listed from the highest percentages to lowest. That would be, "Want leisure time," "Haven't found partner," "Can't afford child care," "No desire for children," "Can't afford a house," "Not sure I'd be a good parent," “Worried about the economy," "Worried about global instability," "Career is a greater priority," "Work too much," "Worried about population growth," "Too much student debt," etc., etc. Climate change is near the bottom.

You can see similar answers in the chart describing why gender-neutral young adults are choosing to have fewer children than "their ideal number."

Now, what happens if you ask people why they ARE choosing to have children? If the question is turned upside down, do issues of faith and religion show up?

It's impossible to know, since it appears that -- for the Times team and the Morning Consult pollsters -- religious questions have nothing to do with the topic of sex, marriage (or not) and fertility. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

So what do Times readers find out about the reasons people give to have more children, even more than one or two? While it appears that no questions were asked about this issue, it's clear some assumptions were built into this story. This summary is long, but essential. Read carefully:

“We want to invest more in each child to give them the best opportunities to compete in an increasingly unequal environment,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and has written about fertility. At the same time, he said, “There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is very strong: There are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal.”


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Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

Why do so many 'woke' activists on cultural left know little or nothing about religion?

For years -- decades even -- I have been active in the whole "media literacy" cause, trying to help Americans (especially in religious circles) understand more about the role that mass media play in our culture.

During these same decades, I've heard journalism educators -- on the cultural left and right -- argue that the same thing needs to be happening in elite newsrooms and even educational institutions, only in reverse.

Let's stick with the journalism angle: One of the main reasons that pros in our newsrooms often do such a lousy job of covering religion is that there are so few editors and managers who know any thing about religion. Let me stress that the issue is not whether these journalists are religious believers. The issue is whether they know crucial information about the lives, traditions and scriptures linked to the lives of millions and millions of believers who reside in this culture and often play roles in public life.

I've mentioned this before: I'll never forget the night when an anchor at ABC News -- faced with Democrat Jimmy Carter talking about his born-again Christian faith -- solemnly looked into the camera and told viewers that ABC News was investigating this phenomenon (born-again Christians) and would have a report in a future newscast.

What percentage of the American population uses the term "born again" to describe their faith? Somewhere between 40 and 60 percent back then? I mean, Carter wasn't telling America that he was part of an obscure sect, even though many journalists were freaked out by this words -- due to simple ignorance (or perhaps bias).

This brings me to this weekend's think piece in The American Conservative, a magazine defined by cultural conservatism not conservative partisan politics (thus the presence of several big-league #NeverTrump scribes). The double decker headline on this piece asks:

Woke Progressivism’s Glaring Religion Gap

Identity politics demands that we "educate ourselves." So why are its practitioners so often ignorant of religious belief?

Here is Georgetown University graduate student Grayson Quay's overture, which ends with a stunning anecdote:

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Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

Are standard theories about the decline of religion in United States crumbling? 

The Religion News Service column “Flunking Sainthood,” as the title indicates, expresses the outlook of liberal Latter-day Saints. But author Jana Riess, who comes armed with a Columbia University doctorate in U.S. religious history, is also interesting when writing about broader matters.

Her latest opus contends that two standard theories about big trends in American religion are too simple and therefore misleading. Her focus is the rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” to constitute 39 percent of “millennials” from ages 18 to 29. The Religion Guy more or less agrees with her points but adds certain elements to the argument.

So, theory No. 1: Though Riess doesn’t note this, this concept was pretty much the creation of the inimitable Dean M. Kelley (1927–1997) in “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.” This 1972 book was electrifying because Kelley was a “mainline” United Methodist and prominent executive with the certifiably liberal National Council of Churches. (His expertise on religious liberty gave the NCC of that era a major role on such issues.) 

Under this “strict churches” theory, religious bodies that expect strong commitments on doctrine and lifestyle from their adherents will prosper because this shows they take their faith seriously, and  they carefully tend to individual members’ spiritual needs. By contrast, losses characterize more latitudinarian (Don’t you love that word?) denominations such as those that dominated in the NCC.

Kelley’s scenario proved keenly prescient, since white “mainline” and liberal Protestant groups were then just beginning decades of unprecedented and inexorable declines in active membership and over-all vitality. The Episcopal Church, for one example, reported 3,217,365 members in 1971 compared with 1,951,907 as of 2010. So much for left-wing Bishop Jack Spong’s 1999 book “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Statistics have been even more devastating with groups like the United Church of Christ and the Church of Christ (Disciples).

Now comes Riess to announce that scenario is “crumbling” because some strict conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have also begun declining in recent years while others, e.g. her own Latter-day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, still grow but at more sluggish rates.

That’s accurate, important, and yes it tells us factors other than strictness are at play.

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Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

I am old enough that I can -- if I focus my mind really hard -- remember what our public discourse was like before the Supreme Court became the only issue in American politics that really, ultimately, mattered.

How did America become a nation in which dialogue and compromise is impossible? Why is the U.S. Supreme Court always ground zero on all of this? What role is the mainstream press playing in this painful equation, especially when covering news linked to religious, moral and cultural clashes?

These kinds of questions are at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on the painful state of political life in this age of Donald Trump, an age in which the status of the high court is even more controversial than ever, with Kennedy's retirement serving as another fuse on this bomb. 

But let's back up a minute, to when old folks like me were young. 

Yes, the 1960s were wild times, of course. The war in Vietnam was incredibly divisive and the nation was rocked by assassinations. Tragic divisions over race were real and could not be ignored. 

Still, everything changed for millions of Americans on Jan. 22, 1973. From that moment on the status of Roe v. Wade -- political wars over defending or overturning that decision -- loomed over every nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and every presidential election, as well. 

Then came October 23, 1987 and the vote on the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the high court. Bork was a former Yale Law School professor (former students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) who embraced and taught originalism -- the legal theory that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as written by the founders.

If you want to catch the flavor of the debate over Bork, here is the famous statement by Sen. Ted Kennedy: 


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