This week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on one of those nasty Godbeat topics that I have been wrestling with since, oh, 1980 or so. The question: Does the press hate religion and/or religious people?
This subject, of course, came up in a post here at GetReligion recently, in which I reacted to a classic M.Z. Hemingway piece at The Federalist that ran under a flaming headline: "Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell."
In her piece, M.Z. made a reference to the "modern media’s deep hostility toward the religious, their religions, and religious liberty in general." While affirming the rest of her piece, I stressed that I remain convinced that the majority of elite American journalists believe that there are good religious groups and bad religious groups and that the goods tend to be led by clergy and intellectuals "whose moral theology fits naturally with Woodstock and the editorial pages of The New York Times."
As William Proctor -- a Harvard Law graduate and former legal affairs reporter for The New York Daily News -- put it in his book "The Gospel According to The New York Times," the world's most influential newsroom doesn't reject all forms of religion, but does reject what he called the "sin of religious certainty." They reject claims by Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., who claim that their faiths affirm eternal, transcendent, revealed truth.
Now, is this a debate that has something to do with core journalism discussions of accuracy, objectivity, truth telling, etc.? That's where I thought I would point GetReligion readers to a classic discussion of some of these issues on the left, in the form of a great PressThink piece by Jay Rosen of New York University called "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."
A chunk of the massive subtitle points toward some even deeper issues in this discussion: "The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith. ..." So here is the section that I think will be especially interesting to GetReligion readers:
Three: The Orthodoxy of No Orthodoxy
Ninety percent of the commentary on this subject takes in another kind of question entirely: What results from the “relative godlessness of mainstream journalists?” Or, in a more practical vein: How are editors and reporters striving to improve or beef up their religion coverage?
Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.
This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:
This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the “world that most of us inhabit” cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.
Yet here is the part that intrigued me:
But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”
In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being “closed” to other traditions and their truth claims -- specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:
“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”
The apparent orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies is a philosophical puzzle in liberalism since John Locke. Journalists cannot be expected to solve it. However, they might in some future professional climate (which may be around the corner) come to examine the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism -- how to do it, name it, explain it, uphold it, and protect it -- for that orthodoxy does exist. And it does not always have adequate answers.
In other words, most members of this elite journalistic priesthood are absolutely sure that they are speaking the absolute truth with they affirm that there are no absolute religious truths. So there.
Thus, they have trouble doing fair, balanced and even accurate journalism about these traditional religious believers that, in their heart of hearts, they believe are "crazy." They struggle, in other words, to follow their own professional doctrines on quality and diversity because of existing biases.
Oh, and, thus, many also struggle to see the religious liberty content of that beloved First Amendment. Now, are they beginning to doubt whether "crazy" religious people -- the bad religion people -- should have free speech, freedom of association and the free, public exercise of their religious beliefs (as opposed to the right to keep them tucked between their ears)?
Read all of this 2004 Rosen essay. In the standard newsroom religion, the First Amendment is the highest, the ultimate, the revealed truth of the journalism cult. But will that hold up? Are journalists now being tempted to start editing the First Amendment?