Pod people: Baby names and political obsessions

In the latest Crossroads podcast I talk about how the media invented a papal war on celebrity names out of whole cloth. That led into a broader discussion of how the media lost a bit of credibility this week with some poor decisions about how to cover the tragedy in Arizona. In the post where we discussed how the media invented quotes and angles (to push the narrative that the Pope didn't like the way the Beckhams named their children), one reader said the behavior of the media surprised him. To that, reader Michael responded that it happens all the time when it comes to the Pope's speeches and homilies. He said that if you're actually interested in understanding what the Pope has to say, you have to find the remarks and read them on your own. He adds:

The really interesting question is, 'why?' Is it simply a matter of 'bad will'? Is it a failure of journalistic standards? Or is it something built-in to the nature of journalism itself as a form of reason, such that even 'good journalism' is constitutively incapable, qua journalism, of 'getting religion' (and many other things besides)? Cases of complete fabrication or obvious malice suggest a mixture of all three, but I'm willing to believe that most journalists are bright, relatively well-educated people operating from good will. Some are even religious. Which means that the deeper problem is 'structural'. Journalism cannot 'get religion', I would suggest, because 'getting religion' would call into question journalism's own animating assumptions--the neutrality of the secular sphere and journalistic method, the transparency of facts, e.g., all of which harbor a host of further, invisible presuppositions (epistemological, metaphysical, anthropological) that bear directly on the religion journalist's subject matter. These assumptions inscribed into the journalistic craft lead even good and sympathetic religion journalists to transpose their subject matter into an idiom that is antithetical to it.

Michael adds that his argument goes over like a lead balloon here at GetReligion. I actually do sympathize with the view that there are systemic problems in journalism. But to me it's like the old Winston Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government (except for all the others that have been tried). And while I do believe that simple adherence to good journalism practices would have taken care of all of the problems in the manufactured story about baby naming, I've been wondering just what in the world went wrong in recent days with coverage of the Arizona tragedy.

The coverage was flawed out of the gate, with many outlets reporting incorrectly that Rep. Gabby Giffords had been killed in the attempt on her life. From then it quickly devolved into a partisan, political, manufactured debate -- also incorrect -- that the shooter had been encouraged by Sarah Palin and/or the Tea Party. They couldn't drop the narrative no matter how many facts came out differently than what they'd assumed at the outset.

I'm wondering if the real problem isn't that many journalists are only able to understand their work in terms of politics. That's not to say that there aren't many legitimate political angles to cover when a member of Congress faces an assassination attempt while hosting an event to meet with constituents. But the way that politics and punditry consumed this story can not be defended. In this story's case, religion coverage hasn't been quite as problematic. Still, can the unforced errors we saw in recent days tell us something about why religion coverage is so banal, predictable and political? Probably.

Last night President Barack Obama gave a speech in Tucson that was well received by Americans across the spectrum, if the Twitter and early columns are any indication. The speech was not political. It celebrated the lives of those who died and those who engaged in acts of heroism. It was full of religion, not just in the civil religion sense (including readings and lessons from Scripture), but in the mention of the role religion played in the lives of those who died. He also -- ever so gently -- rebuked those engaged in the current feeding frenzy:

But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

....If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

.....And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, -- it did not -- but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of the nation, in a way that would make them proud.

I must admit I'd gotten downright discouraged by the media coverage we'd seen since Saturday so I actually felt grateful when President Obama said these words.

Will this speech lead to a change in how the media cover the shooting story in the days ahead? And how will they cover the civil religion and religious content of this speech? Please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage of the religion angles. And on that note, I rather liked this Religion News Service piece written prior to the speech that anticipated which Scripture might be used.

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