Stenography vs. reporting: 'Bias' in the Lone Star State

Just the other night, I was watching an old episode of "The West Wing," one of my all-time favorite television series. On this particular episode, a distinguished journalist returns from an important overseas assignment and finds himself stuck — as he sees it — in the White House press corps.

"Why do you think the White House is a bad beat?" Press Secretary C.J. Cregg asks the reporter, named Will.

"I don't like being a stenographer," he replies.

I feel his pain. In my Associated Press days, I seldom enjoyed being part of a horde camped outside a crime scene or closed-door meeting with a million of my closest media friends. I much preferred being the lone journalist chasing an untold story in a forgotten place.

I was reminded of the stenography quote when I read a recent Dallas Morning News story on a study examining Bible elective courses offered in public schools (this is an issue I remember covering during my time with The Oklahoman).

The Dallas story, churned out by the newspaper's Austin bureau, ran under this headline:

Watchdog group finds 'blatant bias' in Bible courses at Texas schools

What is bias? Presumably, that means that the courses tell only one side of the story. Ironically, the Morning News story — all of 350 words — manages to do the same.

The top of the report:

AUSTIN — Bible study courses in some Texas high schools include factual errors and “blatant religious bias,” a religious freedom watchdog group charges in a new report, blaming the state’s failure to implement guidelines under a 2007 law.

The Texas Freedom Network, which compiled information on the courses from school districts, concludes that the courses have weak foundations, sectarian bias favoring conservative Protestantism, problematic treatment of Judaism, and “pseudo-scholarship” that “reflects ideological biases such as the belief in an America founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles.”

“If everybody is allowed to ignore those guidelines, they have no teeth,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. “And if the state isn’t going to enforce its own guidelines and fund even basic teacher training, maybe we should leave instruction about the Bible to religious congregations who will treat it with the respect it deserves.”

The Morning News fails to elaborate on the factual errors or interview anyone from the school districts dinged by the study.

Like the Dallas newspaper, the Austin American Statesman and The Associated Press both provided relatively one-sided coverage of the study. But the Austin paper at least gave readers some indication of the watchdog group's leanings, noting that the Texas Freedom Network "monitors activities of the so-called religious right in Texas." AP, too, offered a little insight, reporting that the group "monitors the State Board of Education from a progressive perspective."

Interestingly enough, of the coverage I found, only a Fox station in Austin thought to seek another point of view:

Jonathan Saenz with Texas Values, another watch dog group, says proper standards are in place and he's not surprised by the conclusions made in the review.

"The law is very clear in how you are supposed to teach these things, the Supreme Court has even said its constitutional to do it, but you have to look at this complaint from this left wing group from the lens of the bias that they already bring to this issue, they're very hostile to people of religious beliefs particularly Christianity so it's no surprise that they will be hostile to anything related to the Bible in public schools," Saenz said.

(An aside: Perhaps that TV station could hire someone familiar with the concept of a period to edit that quote. But I digress.)

In a perfect world, some enterprising Texas journalist would step away from the media horde and actually report on Bible elective courses in the state's public schools. That journalist would examine curriculums, visit with school officials and students, spend a few days in the classroom and interview First Amendment and education experts of varying ideologies.

The goal would be to produce a real news story. As opposed to, say, stenography.

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