EDITOR'S NOTE: Religion-beat veteran and journalism educator Ira Rifkin has decided (hurrah, I say) to continue writing us a weekly editor's memo focusing primarily on issues in mainstream religion-beat coverage at the global level. Look for the "Global Wire" logo, and please offer him you feedback and encouragement. -- Terry Mattingly
I ended my first post last week by urging readers to pay attention to the media coverage generated by the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. If you did, you know that the gathering generated more reporting, analysis and opinion than any of the week's other events. That was as it should be. Because as head GetReligionista Terry Mattingly opined, Muslim-linked terrorism in general, and the Islamic State in particular, is the "biggest religion story in the world, right now."
Will all the scrutiny focused on the issue lead to an upsurge of attention to the broader coverage of religion? More on this below. But first a snapshot of the week that was for those who did not keep up.
Summit coverage tended to focus as much on what President Barack Obama did not say as on what he did say. Critics blasted the president for not directly linking recent attacks in Copenhagen, Paris and elsewhere to some murderous impulse they argue lies at the heart of Islam. If you do not define the problem precisely, you have no hope of overcoming it, this line of reasoning maintains. Supporters argue that the president is playing it smart both diplomatically and militarily by not loudly proclaiming Islamic theology and mainstream practice the sole cause of the violence. Why pick a fight, insists this side of the debate, with all the world's approximately 1.5 billion Muslims and Muslim-led governments, whose cooperation is needed, when the problem is just a fanatical fringe?
The New York Times dived into the complexity of the president's position with this analysis piece noting the inconsistency -- if not downright hypocrisy -- of Egypt and several other nations that sent representatives to the summit.
And then, of course, there was the much-talked about and deeply researched Atlantic magazine analysis by Graeme Wood that deconstructs the Islamic State's theological underpinnings. The highly nuanced essay obviously took considerable time to prepare, but its launch coincided with the summit and stole a considerable portion of the spotlight, while perhaps helping shape some of the discussions in newsrooms.
But does any of this represent a change in the broader coverage of religion news?
This saturation coverage reminds me of the American media's reaction to the Iranian student takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis. Mainstream news outlets scrambled to make sense of what happened. They were caught flat footed by the outpouring of Iranian Shiite Muslim religious fervor and had little experience in taking region-based politics seriously.
That event -- along with the rise that same decade of the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, which gave rise to the political Christian right -- led to an increase in the number of newspaper staff religion writer positions and whole sections devoted to religion coverage. You also had the dramatic events in Rome -- the year of two popes -- and the dawn of the Pope John Paul II era, with a young, global and truly charismatic pontiff.
Suddenly, serious coverage of religion in daily newspapers, then still the source of relatively in-depth news for most Americans, became hot or at least hotter than it had been. Discussions of the beat certainly began to increase.
It was, I believe, the Golden Age of mainstream religion-news writing. There were other surges on the beat in the mid-80s and '90s, but I am convinced that the modern religion beat was born in that pivotal era between 1979 and the early 1980s.
But it's over. As I see things, even the current non-stop coverage of Islamic-related terrorism is unlikely to spawn another high-caliber explosion of hard news, old school religion writing in the mainstream press.
For one, the newspaper industry has been economically ravaged by the Internet. Two, most Web publications march to a different drummer, one short on reporting and reliant instead on click-seductive opinion. Television news, both network and cable, fares no better. Conflict-zone, political and all-purpose generalist reporters stand in for experienced religion journalists, while expert commentators provide background in hastily constructed sound bites devoid of context.
So while there are more media choices today, there are far fewer in the profession paid to follow closely the religion landscape. As the GetReligionistas often note -- opinion is cheap, but information is expensive.
Too bad, because, among other reasons, unlike at the dawn of that earlier Golden Age, today's American Muslim community is far more organized, far easier to cover and far better at expressing itself to the news media. It's a shame because the Muslim world is and will be for some time at the center of the world's attention, and we need to both better understand that world and allow it to better explain its inner dynamics.