5Q+1: Ari Goldman is in the house

searchforgodharvardNot to bury the lede or anything, by when it comes to religion writing, Prof. Ari L. Goldman of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has been there and done that. During his two decades at the New York Times, he was one of the nation's most trusted bylines on the religion beat and I have heard that judgment voiced by a stunningly broad range of clergy and Godbeat critics. In other words, any decent survey of religion writing in the late 20th century would have to include Ari's work. I sure hope GetReligion.org readers start paying more attention to this weblog's attempts to deal with religion reporting in a global context, because as soon as we can get the software tweaked that will be the main focus of Goldman's blogging as the newest member of your GetReligionistas.

But you need to know some more about Ari, first.

In his current academic incarnation, he serves as the director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life, a duty which regularly takes him and a circle of students to religion news hot spots around the world. Before entering journalism, Goldman went to all of the predictable schools, as in Yeshiva University, Columbia University and, of course, Harvard.

Of course, he is also known as the author of the bestseller, "The Search for God at Harvard," as well as "Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today" and a recent memoir, "Living a Year of Kaddish."

You can find out more (he plays cello in the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra) by reading his online bio and Ari will write his own note of introduction in a few days. However, since he is a pro with years of experience on the beat, I thought I would also ask for his take on our usual 5Q+1 questions, since it has been way too long since we offered one of those. So here goes:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I mostly get my news from old media and first-hand reporting. By old media, I mean The New York Times and the New York Daily News, which I read on paper every day. I also have subscriptions -- yes, on paper -- to a host of denominational papers from Jewish, Catholic, Hindu and Muslim sources. Perhaps most important, I get my religion news from synagogues, churches, temples and mosques, which I visit frequently, both in New York where I live and on my travels. I listen to sermons and I talk to people.

So I am decidedly old-fashioned, but not totally dependent on paper and first-hand observation. I read the religion writing of my former students on the Internet. I have been teaching a course at Columbia in religion writing since 1993. My students have gone on to write religion for mainstream papers in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Raleigh, N.C. and La Crosse, Wisc. Many of them, like Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune, even blog. I read her blog, The Seeker, and several academic blogs, including The Revealer out of NYU, Religion Dispatches out of Emory and Diane Winston's out of USC. And, of course, I read getreligion.org. While I have a special place in my heart for print, I realize that these internet sources are the future of religion journalism.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I want to begin by saying that there is much that the mainstream media gets right. It is easy to bash the work of religion journalists and pick apart their work. But as a former religion writer, I know what a battle it is to report religion intelligently for editors who simply do not "get" religion. And I was at one of the best papers in the country, The New York Times; I can only imagine how hard it is at smaller papers. I am also aware that even if the reporter gets it right, the editors can cut the story and change its focus and meaning.

But that wasn't your question. What does the mainstream press miss? The role of faith in global conflicts. I just returned from a trip to Northern Ireland and was struck by the efforts of Catholic and Protestant leaders to damp down any return to violence in the aftermath of the recent killing of two British soldiers by a radical IRA group. In what is often portrayed as a religious conflict, religion has actually emerged as the solution and not the problem. Another global hot spot where religion plays a role is the Arab-Israel conflict. Facile comparisons to Northern Ireland are being made in part because of the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as the United States' special envoy to the Middle East. In Ireland, he is often hailed as a magician because of his work on the Good Friday Accords. But whether he can work his magic in the Holy Land, where the stew of religion and politics is quite different, requires some smart mainstream media analysis.

arigoldman(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Number one is the economy. It is the big story that has already begun to shape our society, from banks to housing to law enforcement to schools. Religion will not be immune. The Catholic Church is already closing schools and parishes. Other religious organizations are laying off workers, cutting back services and shuttering their doors. But most important is how the economy will affect the people in the pews. With unemployment rising and less disposable income at hand, will people turn toward faith or away from it? A lot of that has to do with how the churches, temples and mosques respond to this crisis.

Another story I will be watching is the integration of Muslims in Europe. In addition to Ireland, I recently traveled to Germany. One of the raging controversies there is the building of mosques in certain neighborhoods. The fears of the mosque are rooted in a mix of bigotry, xenophobia and real estate values. The integration of Muslims in Germany, France, England and other European countries is an important bellwether for the West.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Most things go in and out of fashion -- politics, economic theories, sports teams, clothes, celebrities -- but religion, like it or hate it, remains. And that it because religion is about ultimate questions. How individuals and nations answer those questions motivates them in powerful and practical ways. I mentioned global conflicts earlier, but religion also motivates people's spending, their values, their associations and the ways they educate their children. If you miss the religion story, you miss a good part of our world.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It's far from funny, but I guess it is ironic. I've seen reference after reference in the mainstream press, including the Wall Street Journal, of Bernie Madoff as an "Orthodox Jew." That hurt. There is nothing Orthodox about Madoff. He did not keep kosher or observe the Sabbath or do other things that Orthodox Jews do. What he did was ingratiate himself with the Orthodox who trusted him and gave him money by the millions. Those who trusted him included my alma mater, Yeshiva University, and the high school my wife and oldest children attended, the Ramaz Upper School.

In other words, Madoff stole from the Orthodox but he was not one of them. And even when he wasn't identified as "Orthodox," the fact that he was Jewish was often cited. As Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Manhattan recently told his congregation, the Madoff scandal broke just as the scandal Blagojevich scandal was breaking in Illinois."Did you ever see a reference to Blagojevich's religion?" the rabbi asked. "Yet we kept seeing Madoff described as Jewish."

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

The mainstream media is already beaten down. It is in a very different place than where it was when getreligion.org started five years ago. There is far less religion coverage and the religion writers who remain are heroic, but not perfect. As a blogger, I hope to point out the good and the bad.

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