Air Force Academy's Pagan altar

Reporters have a very, very bad habit. It's a vice I discovered while still a cub reporter at the UCLA Daily Bruin and watched colleagues fall prey to over the years that followed. I've got to admit I fell victim a few times too. See, reporters are people, and people are prone to temptations, and when you're a reporter on deadline, and you're writing a story about something you know nothing about, you're tempted to turn to someone who has been previously quoting as an expert on the subject you know nothing about. Later, this story might be subsumed into a reporter's beat, but instead of then searching around for the real experts, it's easier to keep turning to the same "expert" quoted in the first story.

This is the way little-known academics or think-tank folks or advocacy organizations become go-to sources. That's not to say sometimes the reputation isn't deserved; in many cases it is. But even when it is deserved, there is a dearth of voices that begins to appear over the life cycle of a newsworthy story.

Journalists know this, and KPCC's John Rabe had some fun with this two years back, saying the station's "Off-Ramp" program was imposing a 17-month moratorium on using Joan Didion quotes in stories about Southern California:

Reaction was mixed. ... Bill Boyarsky, Erwin Chemerinsky, Connie Rice, Jack Kyser, and even Shirley Bebich Jeffe could not be reached for comment.

Those folks who couldn't be reached for comment? They're all legitimate experts on different topics of regular import to SoCal newspapers and radio stations. Unfortunately, they are some of the only voices Southern Californians hear.

I thought of this while reading yesterday an article in the Los Angeles Times about the Air Force Academy's new area for Earth-based religions:

But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there.

"We've been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback," said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and has often tangled with the academy over such issues.

Weinstein is an oft-quoted voice for stories about the Christianization of the military. Whether or not he deserves it is your call. Certainly, he's put in the leg work.

Weinstein blew through The Jewish Journal offices when I was working there in 2007. From a column my boss wrote about Weinstein's mission:

Even Abe Foxman, the taurine head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), doesn't talk to Weinstein any more. "He said to me, 'Why do you have to be so nasty? You'll just make them madder.'"

When Abe Foxman finds you abrasive, imagine what the non-Jews think.

What bothered me about this story was not that Weinstein was quoted, though I'm certain that a better voice could have been found for the prime real estate of the third paragraph, but that it appears the LAT reporter relied on him almost entirely to shape the tone and perspective of this piece.

His name appears in eight of the article's 20 paragraphs. In the Associated Press version of this story, which doesn't even mention the cross that the LAT says "marred" this "sign of a more tolerant religious climate," doesn't quote Weinstein once. And unlike the LAT, the AP at least talks to someone who is a practicing Pagan. Kind of seems relevant.

This is not to say that the angle to the LAT article wasn't a good angle, maybe even more important than the AP's grand opening approach. But a reporter for any newspaper, let alone a former member of what used to be the Big Four (LAT, NYT, WaPo, WSJ), should know better than to just turn to one monotonous voice.

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