If you read journals of political news and opinion, then you are very familiar with a feature-story format that I like to call "visiting the house (or camp) of the enemy." What kind of advocacy publication are we talking about? Let's say the old New Republic or Rolling Stone, on the left, or The Weekly Standard or National Review on the right.
In this story, a reporter -- acting like a National Geographic staffer -- visits a strange and exotic type of person and tries to describe them and their tribe in their natural habitat, talking about their strange and maybe scary customs and beliefs.
A key element of this format is that they rarely include the voices of people on the other side of controversial issues that are discussed. The members of the exotic tribe talk and talk and talk and there is never really a response.
Why is this? Because the reporter is the representative of the opposing side and everything the members of the enemy tribe say is being filtered through the worldview of their opponents, framed in ways that make the words extra threatening or ridiculous. You are reading the Rolling Stone version of a gathering of pro-life activists or The Weekly Standard version of a gathering of postmodern gender-studies scholars.
Let me stress that I know this format well because I read, and appreciate, these kinds of publications. When you read In These Times you are reading a liberal point of view that is so strong that it often makes the left uncomfortable. Ditto for World magazine on the right. I appreciate this kind of journalism.
The question for today is this: What is this format doing in The Washington Post?
With these issues in mind, let's look at a few passages from a classic "visiting the house of the enemy" feature that ran under the headline: "Fear, faith and the rise of Ben Carson." Let's start with the lede, which takes a member of the Post national enterprise team deep into the wilds of the Bible Belt:
MONTROSE, Ala. -- She had known exactly what Ben Carson meant when he spoke of leaders who are trying to “destroy America.” That meant President Obama. She had understood perfectly when he spoke of all the “secular progressives who don’t like Judeo-Christian values” and “want to destroy your family.” That meant all the liberals who would ridicule Christians like her.
And when Carson said at a rally in Mobile on Nov. 19 that God himself had opened his path to the presidency, Toni Ledet, 59, cheered with the crowd of hundreds.
“Christians are tired of what’s going on -- they want a leader with strong faith,” she said that night, and now she was home with her husband, Mike, 57, saying something else that explains the deep-rooted appeal of the famed neurosurgeon, even as some recent polls show his popularity slipping.
“I’m afraid,” Toni began, sitting on her front porch in Montrose. “I’m really and truly afraid.”
Are the Ledets typical? Do they represent a rising tide of theocrats?
The story really isn't interested in numbers and trends and issues. The point is that these wild, exotic people really exist and are helping shape the Republican Party. Are the statements they are making typical of the views in their camp? Do the handful of people included in this report truly represent millions of people?
There is no need to explore all of that, really. When you write for The Weekly Standard or Rolling Stone you already know what your readers want to read. You know the information that they need to support their point of view.
This is also true, apparently, when you write and edit product for the national enterprise team of The Washington Post.
A key element in these stories -- after the candid visit to the enemy's home -- is the moment when the outsider bravely ventures into one of the tribe's gatherings. Let's listen in!
She settled into her seat in the arena, now full of people like Wanda Brooks, a retiree with blond hair, red nails and a “Foxy Ladies Vote Republican” button who said she loves Carson because he is not afraid to stand up for his Christian beliefs, which made her feel like standing up for hers.
“I know it’s not politically correct to say,” she began. “But every nation that has fallen has fallen because they are anti-God. We have no future if we keep going like this. Except beheadings.”
Nearby was Mike Wilson, 49, who said he loves that Carson is “not afraid to offend people” by talking about the thing that worries him most: “radical Muslims.”
“President Obama won’t say ‘radical Muslims,’ ” Wilson said. “But there is a fraction of people that hate Americans, and they are radical Muslims.”
“If we don’t have godly people running the country, we are going to be in trouble,” said a woman named Aurelia, who didn’t want to give her last name and whose comment elicited nods from the people sitting around her, including a pale young woman named Kinsley who said only a godly person could stand up to Muslim terrorists.
“If we continue like this we run the risk of a serious attack -- or a takeover,” said Kinsley, who wouldn’t give her last name, either. Her face was grim. Her arms were folded. “They could be anywhere,” she said of the terrorists. “They could be anyone.”
Brooks leaned in closer and decided to say what “anyone” meant to her. “We don’t have a president that cares about our nation,” she yelled over the music. “I believe he’s a Muslim and wanting Muslims to take over our nation. One nation under Allah instead of one nation under God! But if everyone prays and turns from their wicked ways, then God has promised to answer our prayers. That’s why we need a man of faith.”
Let's end with a few more journalistic questions.
If Rolling Stone had published this story, how would it have been different?
If the Post is going to use this journalistic approach, will the same format and tone be used with, oh, a gathering of secular or liberal Christian activists who are deeply committed to Hillary Clinton and believe that if she is not elected their community will somehow be at risk? Will readers get to hear the most colorful and extreme quotes explaining their views and noting that they represent a crucial element of today's Democratic Party?
Once again, let me stress: I think this is a valid approach to magazine journalism in openly biased journals of opinion. But is that what the Post is about these days, when it comes to covering religion, politics and culture?