Church of the New York Times (updated)

As the old saying goes, there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who think that there are only two kinds of people in the world and people who do not think that there are only two kinds of people in the world. I once shared that one-liner on one of my son's clever high-school friends and she dryly replied: "What about the people who just don't care?" Good point. Thus, it may not be accurate to say that, Sunday after Sunday, there are two kinds of people in the U.S. zip codes that really matter. There are people get up on Sunday morning and head off to church. Then there are people who arise and settle down to consume a different sacrament -- a cup of coffee (or two) and the Sunday New York Times.

Yes, there are people who do both. But, even then, which sacred rite comes first? Which rite defines and informs the other?

I believe it was the Rev. John Stott, an evangelical Anglican intellectual (click here, please), who once said that thinking Christians should live their lives with the Bible in one hand and a good newspaper in the other. Then again, perhaps it was Karl Barth who said it first.

Anyway, I have met a few people of the pulpit and pen who pull that off, but there are many more doubters -- in pulpits and in newsrooms -- who have no interest in that dialogue.

As we are seeing once again, a high wall of distrust and misunderstanding stands between the Times and many religious believers, especially those in conservative Christian and Jewish groups. This is an ongoing problem and, thus, questions about religion haunted the newspaper's crucial (and critical) self study in 2005.

Many religious traditionalists simply assume that the Times is anti-religion or, perhaps, anti-Christian. This subject is hot right now for obvious reasons as the world's most powerful newsroom continues to its almost daily barrage of news about the Catholic church and the abuse of children, mostly teen-aged boys, by clergy. More on this in a moment.

However, is the Times anti-religion or anti-Christian? What about journalists in general? GetReligion has been wrestling with this issue since day one. Ditto for The Revealer. This discussion, for me, became rather personal in Jay Rosen's landmark essay, "Journalism is Itself a Religion: Special Essay on Launch of The Revealer."

At one point, Rosen states that about 90 percent of all discussions about religion and the press focus on the issue of how to improve mainstream coverage of religion news. That's important, he noted, but:

Here and there in the discussion of religion "in" the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: "It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy," wrote David Samuels.

This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:

This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist's convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the "world that most of us inhabit" cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.

Yet here is the part that intrigued me:

But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

In other words, it's against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being "closed" to other traditions and their truth claims -- specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

In other words, many journalists focus their priesthood on the defense of this orthodoxy that there can be no orthodoxies. How does the press produce fair, accurate and balanced coverage of both sides of religious controversies when -- according to this doctrine -- one side is automatically wrong?

This is a complex subject that makes people get rather tense, as you can see in this response by Samuels to a very early GetReligion post on this topic.

Now, after this very long introduction, please allow me to point readers toward a very provocative Commonweal essay by veteran Godbeat scribe Kenneth L. Woodward, of Newsweek fame.

Woodward is Catholic, but few people (at least that I know) would place him on the right side of the aisle when it comes to defending the church. Still, his "Church of the 'Times' " piece opens with some familiar criticisms of how the Times is handling its "all-hands-on-deck drive to implicate the pope in diocesan cover-ups of abusive priests." However, this is not the big idea of the piece. Woodward's ultimate goal is to help dissect the mission that drives the Times team and the role that the newspaper plays in the real world.

No question, the Times's worldview is secularist and secularizing, and as such it rivals the Catholic worldview. But that is not unusual with newspapers. What makes the Times unique -- and what any Catholic bishop ought to understand -- is that it is not just the nation's self-appointed newspaper of record. It is, to paraphrase Chesterton, an institution with the soul of a church. And the church it most resembles in size, organization, internal culture, and international reach is the Roman Catholic Church.

Like the Church of Rome, the Times is a global organization. Even in these reduced economic times, the newspaper's international network of news bureaus rivals the Vatican's diplomatic corps. The difference is that Times bureau chiefs are better paid and, in most capitals, more influential. A report from a papal nuncio ends up in a Vatican dossier, but a report from a Times correspondent is published around the world, often with immediate repercussions. With the advent of the Internet, stories from the Times can become other outlets' news in an ever-ramifying process of global cycling and recycling. ... The pope speaks twice a year urbi et orbi (to the city and to the world), but the Times does that every day.

Does the newspaper of record have "received truths" and doctrines? Try to imagine, asks Woodward, a Times editorial that opposes any form of abortion. Does it have evangelists? Turn to the op-ed page. Does breathing the air inside the Times newsroom affect how people think and live? How about the Vatican? Woodword proclaims:

Every institution creates its own sheltering culture. The Holy See is larger, more complex, and much older than the Times, and the Roman curia is inherently more diverse than the newsroom of the Times, despite the latter's periodic bouts of mandated diversity training. But as anyone who has covered the Vatican can tell you, its institutional culture is also inherently traditional, conservative, and self-protective. It is, after all, the last functioning Renaissance court.

As U.S. newspapers go, the Times is also a venerable institution and its hierarchy of editors, deputy and assistant editors, and copyeditors is a match for the Roman curia. The paper has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. To those who devote their lives to it, the Times has become "a place that will shelter you the rest of your life," as Arthur Gelb wrote in his detailed memoir, City Room. ... A journalist could spend a lifetime in its newsroom without encountering a dissenter from the institutional ideology.

And what is the bottom line? Perhaps the current publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., put it best when he said: "I have the Times. That's my religion. That's what I believe in, and it's a hell of a thing to hold on to."

People have been talking about this piece for days. By all means, read it all.

It's easy, after reading this kind of piece, to simply open a vein and engage in Times bashing. That is clearly not Woodward's goal. That is not our goal either.

So stay sane, people. Fire away, but stick to the concepts in this post and Woodward's actual piece.


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