NASCAR, Cabela's -- and Catholicism?

The 80th anniversary issue of The New Yorker includes a report by Nicholas Lemann on how some editors of the nation's most prestigious daily newspapers are feeling beleaguered by criticisms by both liberals and conservatives -- but especially by conservatives. The essay opens with Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, talking at length about how President Bush's adviser Karl Rove "pounded on us for two cocktails' worth of conversation." (Keller had made the mistake of asking Rove what he thought of the Times' political coverage.) At the Chicago Tribune, editor in chief Ann Marie Lipinski deals with a reader who sees anti-Bush hostility in a photo from President Reagan's funeral at the National Cathedral, and another who believes the Tribune is preaching socialism because it published a woman's memories of not qualifying for health insurance.

The article touches on themes explored regularly on this blog, and with pleasant surprises. Here is a passage about Keller's involvement in writing about presidential candidate John Kerry's religion gap:

"The first event I went to was a stem-cell event in New Hampshire," Keller said. "I thought back on Bush's agonizing over that issue -- soliciting the advice of clergy -- but at this Kerry event the words 'faith,' 'morality,' 'God' never came up. There was not even the implicit suggestion that it was a moral dilemma for many Americans. So I was focussed on this issue of why Kerry didn't talk more about faith. The second stop was a meeting in Philadelphia with black ministers, mostly from Pennsylvania and Ohio, about turnout. He left them cold. He didn't even try to connect, or to suggest that they had some kind of bond based on faith." (Rove had complained to Keller and Taubman that the Times didn't understand the American who regularly attended church.)

"So, when we finally got some time with Kerry, I wanted to ask him about religion," Keller went on. "Hell, I'm the executive editor, I get to decide on at least the first couple of questions. He was a little nonplussed. He was pretty elusive. A little defensive. He ended up saying, 'I really do believe. I need to talk more about that.'" (After the interview, the Times ran a story, with Keller's as the second byline, about Kerry's "visible discomfort in discussing religion.")

James Warren of the Tribune says that reporters skew to the left in their political sympathies, then makes the astonishing claim that it doesn't matter because they are neither writing editorials nor covering the nation's capital:

"There is a consensus in newsrooms, and it's distinctly left of center. I suspect an overriding majority of the newsroom voted for Kerry -- though up on the executive floor, a majority voted for Bush. But people don't realize the huge amount of content out there that's pretty value-free." He picked up the Metro section of that day's Tribune and showed me the front page. "Look at this! I'm not sure how ideology plays into the governor closing a dump." He picked up the Tempo section, which had a cover story on luggage with rollers. "I think the reporter who wrote that is liberal," he said. "I think she voted for Kerry. But how does that play into this piece? They don't realize that ninety-nine per cent of folks in journalism aren't opining or covering the White House."

One of the other juiciest details is an all too brief reference to the importance of religious faith to NBC News anchor Brian Williams:

Neal Shapiro, the president of NBC News, whose variegated domain includes cable television, and even blogs, plainly felt that the nightly news broadcast needs to have its red-state credentials in order. He said of NBC's new anchor, Brian Williams, "He's a great journalist, a great reporter. Having said that, he's a huge nascar fan, has been since his father took him to the track when he was a kid. He cares a lot about his faith. He wants to take the broadcast on the road a lot. He was on the road the whole week before the inauguration. Brian does get it. He once did a story on Cabela's" -- the superstore chain for hunters. "A lot of the people in the newsroom said, 'Gee I didn't know about that.' But he did. And many of our bureaus did. We're not just the Northeast Corridor." One doesn't get the sense that Shapiro worries about the possibility that NBC's anchor might be out of touch with the values and concerns of residents on the Upper West Side.

Don Imus began predicting, weeks before Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw in the anchor's chair, that Williams would be a hit among red-state Americans, not least because of his love for NASCAR.

I've not found much about Williams' faith online, but he did give an interview to Catholic Standard, the student paper at The Catholic University of America, which he attended for one year.

He recalled the highlight of his time at Catholic University when he stood near the east entrance of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to greet Pope John Paul II during his 1979 papal visit to Washington, D.C.

"It was kind of bizarre. I was back and standing in the same place where I literally shook the hand of the pope," he said. "It gave me chills."

. . . During his short time as a Catholic University student, Williams, who is Catholic, said he remembered being particularly impressed with the religious scholars who taught at the university.

"That was one of the greatest benefits of going to school there," said Williams, adding he grew up in average middle class Catholic home in New Jersey.

. . . Throughout his life, Williams said[,] he has looked to his faith for guidance and comfort. He said that was especially true when he lost his mother to cancer 10 years ago. "Like most Americans, I rely on things earthly and things not earthly," he said.

You don't have to be a fan of NASCAR, or even an occasional customer of Cabela's, to appreciate the changes Williams may bring to network news coverage.

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