News and Beliefs at the Times

NYT Building2In July of 1997, the U.S. State Department, after months of pressure from human-rights activists, released its first global report on the persecution of religious minorities. The report was six months overdue and, thus, had not been released during a tense campaign by the Clinton White House to obtain Most Favored Nation trade status for China. A press aide stressed that it was Congress that demanded that this document include an emphasis on the persecution of Christians.

The report received minimal press coverage.

The following November, about 8 million Americans in Catholic and Protestant congregations took part in a day of prayer on behalf of the persecuted church, an effort linked to a rising tide of activism on human-rights issues in a wide variety of churches.

This event received even less mainstream coverage than the state department report, despite the fact that it was timed to justify major news coverage. The day of prayer fell shortly after a controversial visit to the U.S. by the president of Chinese. It fell on the same weekend as Beijing's release of a famous political activist.

While writing Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic, I asked an important American journalist -- long a defender of old-fashioned liberal values on human rights -- what he thought of this silence in the mainstream press. The late A.M. Rosenthal, by then retired as editor of the New York Times, was not amused.

"You don't need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it," he said. "So why are journalists missing this? ... I am inclined to believe that they just can't grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people -- especially conservatives -- is simply too strong for them to see what is happening."

But there was more to this problem than politics, stressed Rosenthal. The basic problem was journalistic in nature. Far too many mainstream reporters and editors, he said, do not want to admit that religion continues to be a powerful force that helps shape events -- big and small -- in America and around the world.

Yes, I asked Rosenthal if many journalists simply don't "get religion."

"Precisely," he replied.

I offer this Rosenthal flashback in order to add a bit of context to the final "Beliefs" column by Peter Steinfels, which just ran in the New York Times. Several GetReligion readers sent in notes about this piece, including a tip of the hat to Steinfels by Richard Ostling, the veteran religion-beat scribe at Time and the Associated Press.

This fascinating farewell is must reading by anyone who cares about the history and the future of religion writing in the mainstream press.

Steinfels began writing "Beliefs" in 1990, when he was the paper's senior religion correspondent, and he continued to write it fortnightly after he left the staff in 1997. The "Beliefs" column began when he wrote a memo to his superiors noting that the newspaper was focusing almost all of its religion coverage on the interests of "general" readers, be they secular or religious or somewhere in between.

Nowhere in the paper was there a regular treatment of religion for readers with a special interest in the topic, as there was, obviously, for business and sports, but also for science, art, architecture and many other subjects.

Beliefs would be a column that no more had to insert a phrase identifying the Apostles' Creed, Gnosticism or Ramadan in a sentence than art or music critics had to insert capsule definitions of Romanticism or Expressionism.

Things did not quite work out that way. Because Beliefs appeared in the regular news section, there was a natural pressure to attract as many general readers as possible. It was painful, for instance, when an editor insisted that a July 6, 1991, reference to the Apostles' Creed should add "the ancient affirmation of basic Christian doctrines"; and yet a subsequent informal polling of a couple of dozen Times readers (especially ones under 35) suggested that the editor was right.

Question-Mark-on-Stained-GlassSteinfels includes a number of other interesting insights into the challenges he faced writing about religion -- especially traditional forms of religion -- in the Times during an era shaped by cultural warfare over topics such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage and many other tensions between state and church, mosque, synagogue, etc.

It is also crucial to note, he said, that doing fair, balanced Times coverage of these clashes between traditional believers and the "leading voices of political and cultural liberalism" was complicated by the fact that these liberal voices "included the editorial columns of this paper" and those voices "were heard on some of its other pages as well."

Please give this "Beliefs" finale a close reading. Steinfels deserves the attention and applause he will receive for his work.

Yet, you may also want to think through the implications of what Rosenthal said about religion and the news, as well as these new observations from Steinfels.

Rosenthal believed that many reporters and editors, at the Times and elsewhere, simply could not understand why religion was so important. It was hard for them to do serious coverage of religion stories that they could not see and, often, did not want to see.

Meanwhile, Steinfels is convinced that his editors believed -- accurately, it appears -- that is was their readers who could not understand even the most basic facts about religion, in contrast with their grasp of "insider" language about the arts, business, sports, etc. Most New York Times readers would not understand a clear reference to the Apostles' Creed? Really?

Stop and think about that. What if both of these men are speaking the truth?

Let's see: "All the news that's fit to print"?


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