It appears that this new GetReligion term -- "Kellerism" -- is catching on among some people who have, for years or decades, been close readers of the cultural bible that is The New York Times.
What is "Kellerism," or the journalism gospel according to former New York Times editor Bill Keller? Click here for a primer.
Now, Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher linked to our Kellerism term as he explained his recent decision to cancel his very old Times subscription. Friends and neighbors, Rod is a cultural conservative who has, as a mainstream journalist, been defending the essential integrity of the Times for a long, long time.
Before we get to his remarks, I want to put them in some context.
Two years ago, Arthur S. Brisbane signed off as the reader's representative for the Times with a column entitled, "Success and Risk as The Times Transforms." He defended the world's most powerful newspaper, yet also made the following observation linked to the hot-button subject of media bias:
I ... noted two years ago that I had taken up the public editor duties believing “there is no conspiracy” and that The Times’s output was too vast and complex to be dictated by any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal. I still believe that, but also see that the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds -- a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.
When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism -- for lack of a better term -- that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.
As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.
Think about that again: "More like causes than news topics."
And here comes the key concept in this amazing candid column:
Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.
It’s a huge success story -- it is hard to argue with the enormous size of Times Nation -- but one that carries risk as well. A just-released Pew Research Center survey found that The Times’s “believability rating” had dropped drastically among Republicans compared with Democrats, and was an almost-perfect mirror opposite of Fox News’s rating. Can that be good?
This is precisely what Dreher is talking about in his Kellerism post.
The key is that many -- not all -- of the news professionals in the Times newsroom want Kellerism, when covering religious, moral and cultural topics. That's bad. But what is worse is that there is now an entire Times Nation that may want, may expect, their newspaper to deliver an advocacy-journalism product when covering these kinds of stories.
The impact on religion-news coverage? That's rather obvious. Balanced, fair, accurate American Model journalism is suddenly seen as "conservative" journalism.
Notice what’s going on here. It’s not that tmatt believes the NYT owes George Fox a story favorable to its point of view. It’s that the NYT is practicing advocacy journalism -- and is a powerful advocate -- while either not noticing or (more likely) not caring that it is stacking the deck against religious conservatives. I read the story, and there is no attempt to convey to readers what the issue looks like from the school’s point of view. It is yet another story reinforcing the NYT’s constant narrative: that LGBT folks are nothing but victims of uncaring Christians and their institutions.
This leads to the main point I want GetReligion readers to see. The essential question: Is this hive mind/Times Nation reality good for the newspaper's bottom line in the current digital, national media age? I would add: Is this strategic change good for rational, informed discourse in our political culture?
Here is Dreher again:
In a time of rapidly declining newspaper readership, there are not enough subscribers or potential subscribers in the New York metropolitan area for the NYT to sustain itself over the long run. It has to grow its business. There is a vast potential audience in the country for the product the NYT has to sell. People like, well, me: intellectually and culturally engaged readers who want a quality comprehensive newspaper that reports in depth on national and international events and trends. The Times is that newspaper. It is not a conservative newspaper, but it is a great newspaper, and conservatives would get a lot out of reading it. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t have been a subscriber for 20 years.
I quit the other day, you will recall, because I got fed up with the steady drumbeat of Kellerism. I don’t want a newspaper that reports favorably on my community, necessarily. I want a newspaper that strives to be fair and comprehensive. But I am not paying for a newspaper that consistently portrays us as people to be feared and loathed, and rarely people who have a point of view that deserves to be heard, and to be part of the conversation. The George Fox story TMatt cites is a perfect example of Kellerism; its author and its editors apparently don’t think the college’s concerns deserve explaining to NYT readers, presumably because those concerns do not serve the LGBT liberation narrative. That’s how readers who depend on theTimes for their understanding of this complex and fast-moving social, cultural, and legal story fail to get a grasp of how things look from the conservative Christian point of view, and assimilate the NYT’s bias: that there is no legitimate “other side” to the story. Kellerism matters for the same reason newspapers from an earlier time ignoring LGBT people matters: it reinforces the idea that the lives and the interests of an unfavored group of people are so marginal that they can safely be ignored or treated disfavorably, because they don’t matter.
The Times is a leading contributor to an atmosphere of bigotry and illiberalism toward a large number of Americans, not all of them Christians, an atmosphere that is resulting and will increasingly result in harm coming to us. They’re not going to do it with my money, not anymore.
The thing is, I don’t understand why, from a business sense, the Times would take this tack. ...
This might be an answer. A friend who works in media at a senior level told me the other day that the Times almost certainly has a hardcore subscriber base that is militantly liberal on cultural issues, which are at the center of American politics today, and that will not tolerate any deviation from the progressive line. The Times‘s own institutional bias favors that point of view, but it’s also the case that they may feel economic pressure to cater to those readers’ prejudices. That’s understandable, to a point. But when your business model requires you to expand your customer base past New York City, and reach out to a big country that’s a lot more conservative than New Yorkers are, it makes sense to be more broad-minded and inclusive in your coverage.
And there you have it. Kellerism is, to use a term from Southern churches, all about preaching to the choir. Forget the business questions for a minute: Is this good for journalism? Does this help readers and voters understand complex issues linked to religion, culture and morality?