America does not have many perfect newspapers. However, it appears that -- when it comes with MSM struggles to cover religion -- there is one down in Dallas. At least, that's the message I read between the lines while reading the latest installment of "Ask The Editor," a new online feature offered by The Dallas Morning News. I hope that this link remains up-to-date, because the News online edition does not offer a permalink feature and the site's print-story option is absolutely terrible.
Here is the first question in this edition of "Ask The Editor," with Managing Editor George Rodrigue.
A phone caller the other day said he believes The News is anti-Christian, anti-fundamentalist, pro-multiculturalism and generally too quick to call everything into question. He pointed out that many of our readers are conservative white folks, and suggested that we should try to tailor the news to their liking. He also opined that our thinking as journalists was warped by the '60s.
Now, I have absolutely no doubt that the editor of the newspaper in America's most culturally conservative city gets calls like that. Heckfire, I used to get calls telling me the same thing about my coverage when I was at The Charlotte Observer. There are tons of conservative readers out there who (a) basically are so mad at the mainstream press that they have lost the ability to see what their newspapers do right as well as what they do wrong and/or (b) think that good journalism is one-sided public relations for their point of view. In other words, they do not want a journalistic solution to a journalistic problem.
However, I have to admit that I have my doubts that this caller is a true representative of the many, many people who have deep-sixed their DMN newspaper subscriptions in the past decade or so. Frankly, I also wish that the editor had elected to respond to a printed email, rather than asking readers to trust his paraphrased version of what this caller is alleged to have said. A direct quote would have been better.
Meanwhile, we are dealing with a newspaper that is -- on its editorial pages -- essentially moderate conservative in its political leanings, yet consistently progressive in its dealings with religious and cultural issues. When it comes to culture, this is a National of Council of Churches newspaper in an essentially National Association of Evangelicals region.
There are real tensions there and I say that as someone who has, to one degree or another, been a News reader since 1974 or thereabouts. I have watched that newspaper evolve through many stages. I am sure that the staff believes that it is a "moderate" newspaper. That would be true in Boston or New York City, but it is not true in Dallas.
So how did Rodrigue respond? Here are two key passages, but to get the tone you need to read the whole thing.
... (Journalists) are probably children of the '60s -- but that would be the 1760s, not the 1960s. We do have professional biases, but not necessarily the political ones that many people suspect. And we try hard not to tailor the news to the prejudices of our audience, but to their interests.
Journalists in the U.S. aren't licensed, but we are a profession in the sense of having a shared sense of our history. That history dates back to the age of the American Enlightenment, which spanned the end of the colonial era and the rise of a free nation. Several intellectual and cultural features characterized the time:
• A craving for knowledge and wisdom.
• A belief that an informed public should govern itself, and that public debate, with all the available facts on the table, was the route to civic wisdom.
• A sense that following Reason (they loved their capital letters back then) was akin to following God, because why else would the Creator give us the power of reason?
So, journalism is essenitally a deist or Unitarian/Universalist profession. Any observer would have to admit that there is truth to that. Click here for a classic Jay Rosen essay on some of these tensions ("Journalism Is Itself a Religion").
So here is the editor's summation of the mindset of journalism:
Journalists generally think they should:
• Help voters hold government accountable to the public, by treating all public proclamations skeptically.
• Treat no fact or claim as beyond question.
• Give a voice to all sides of every public debate.
• Extend special care for the needs or stories of the otherwise voiceless -- the ordinary people who lack money or organization to influence government through lobbyists, for instance.
• Follow stories, once launched, to their natural conclusions.
As journalists, we view these things not as form of political bias but as a professional mission. One can understand, however, why some of our readers would feel otherwise.
Note the heavy role of government in all of this, as the designated way of doing good in this world. I also have questions about his belief that newspapers today "Treat no fact or claim as beyond question." I would argue that there are many closed issues in the modern newsroom, subjects that newspapers believe are beyond debate -- which is a serious issue in the age of one-newspaper towns.
But Rodrigue also notes that some readers tend to get mad when their fundamental beliefs are challenged. He is right, of course. But this is also true in newsrooms. Journalists also get mad when their fundamental beliefs are challenged, especially when people who are very different from them stop buying the daily newspaper.
But, in the end, Rodrigue believes that this conflict is about the "fundamentalists," although he does not appear to know what that word means in its historic context.
If one devoutly believes in a fundamentalist reading of any religious text, one might regard stories that reflect well on other beliefs as an assault one's own faith; we tend to focus on the duty to tell all sides of every story.
The editors need to ask: Other than a few angry readers, are people upset that other religions are covered or that their own religion faces criticism? Or, are they upset when journalists consistently make errors covering their faith or, to use Bill Moyers' classic phrase, seem "tone deaf" while doing so?
In conclusion, I would urge News editors to realize that they need to focus on the criticisms that come from readers who know Dallas, know Texas and, yes, know The Dallas Morning News. It's way too easy to ignore the concerns of people who you have already labeled "fundamentalist," anti-enlightenment and anti-journalism.
Hey, I know Texas. There are smart critics out there. Listen to the ones who care about the news and the News.