Journalists are often impelled to indulge in navel-gazing at the ping of an incoming email. One topic we tend to chew on, like a cow masticating her cud, is: do we display bias? Our second favorite: are we as bad as those other guys? So let me confess a few of my own, hmmm, suppositions. Every writer is biased. Whether it's who gets the place of honor in the "kicker quote" (the end quote) or the writer's use of adjectives, or the way an article is structured, we are leading the reader -- even with the best of intentions.
That's why we need each other. In a better world, writers wouldn't ever descend to snarky asides and clever one-liners in critiquing each other's work. We'd want to help each other be better journalists.
I'm not always gracious about getting comments that suggest I could have done a story better, but if a comment brings me closer to that elusive goal of fairness, I try very hard to be grateful.
All of this reflection was brought on (again) by Lisa Miller's response in Newsweek to a Belief Watch column she wrote last week.
Her topic? Speculation among some Christians that Barack Obama might be the Antichrist.
Apparently the column was the catalyst for a flood of outraged emails from readers who felt that it had sensational elements, gave "wingnut loonies" on the far right a platform -- or even implied endorsement by the writer herself.
Miller didn't address my comments on that column, or those of our readers, except indirectly. But what she does say is about the Antichrist column is (excuse me) revealing. Here's an excerpt:
I do not endorse millennialist theology, but I do not dismiss it either. I am a journalist, not a rabbi; I do not aim to condone one truth claim above another, for that way madness lies. (Did God really part the Red Sea? Did Jesus, sentenced to death for political crimes, really rise from the dead after three days in a cave? Did Mohammed really travel to heaven to talk to God? Did an angel named Moroni descend from heaven to show a young American boy named Joseph Smith the location of secret tablets upon which scripture was written?) Christians with an apocalyptic worldview are important to the story of Christianity and in America, their values have to a great degree shaped what we call the culture wars. Many of them believe that what they see as the creep of secular progressivism is a prelude to the end of the world. They are an important part of the American fabric, and in my view, worth 600 words in a national magazine. As I do with most controversial subjects, I let these end-times believers speak for themselves, hoping that readers would draw their own conclusions about the soundness of their beliefs. I never imagined that readers would think that they spoke for NEWSWEEK or for me.
I'm not sure what Miller is saying here. Is she saying that in her role as a journalist she can't make truth claims? Fair enough.
Or is she saying that no journalist can be credible if they practice a particular faith? While the questions she includes might suggest this interpretation, I find it almost impossible to believe that's what she meant.
While newsrooms are stereotypically perceived as hostile to people of faith, I've known many mainstream journalists who were people of (private) faith.
But my chief problem with her apologia is that I'm not sure it holds up to scrutiny. Look back at some of her previous columns, like this one.
In that column Miller added multiple voices, a context, and a challenge-giving previously uninformed readers some basis on which to weigh the evidence.
At the core of my first critique of the Antichrist column was the sense that she hadn't given it the serious consideration it deserved. Diverse perspectives in dialogue with each other about hot-button topics can be done within the limits of a 600-word piece.
Instead we have one main voice, that of Raptureready.com's Todd Strandberg, and a confusing, ambiguous quote from Liberty University's Mat Staver.
I have nothing against Lisa Miller -- the American landscape is an endlessly fertile source of fascinating material, and kudos to her for allowing some minority voices to be heard. I also have empathy for the challenge of trying to cram a huge subject into a tiny news hole.
But I'm not surprised that she got feedback from readers who assumed she was taking a stand.
My bias? It's the folks who claim to be without a slant that you really have to watch.
Picture of the Beast with Seven Heads from Wikimedia Commons