Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

This week's "Crossroads" podcast was supposed to be about the Indiana wars, but that's not how things turned out. The more host Todd Wilken and I talked (click here to tune in), the deeper we dug into a related topic -- the power of elite media to frame national debates.

Wilken found it interesting that, in an age in which traditional print circulation numbers are in sharp decline, that these publications continue to wield great power. What's up with that?

Here's what I told him, as a door into listening to the whole discussion. Remember that movie -- "Shattered Glass" -- about the ethics crisis at The New Republic, long before the digital wars felled that Beltway oracle? The reason the magazine was so important, a character remarked during the film, was its reputation (especially in Democratic administrations) as the "in-flight magazine of Air Force One."

In other words, the old TNR had very few readers, relatively speaking, but about half of them worked in the White House and in the office of people who had the White House inside numbers on speed dials.

And what about The New York Times, the great matron of the Northeast establishment? Yes, the on-paper numbers are down and there are financial issues. But does anyone believe that -- to name one crucial audience -- the percentage of U.S. Supreme Court clerks who subscribe to the Times has gone down? How about in the faculty lounges of law schools that produce justices on the high court?

In other words, it isn't how many people read these publications, but WHERE people read these publications. We are talking about what C.S. Lewis called the Inner Ring.

This brings me to my "On Religion" column this past week, which marked the end of my 27th year writing this weekly piece of analysis for, first, the old Scripps Howard News Service and now for the Universal Syndicate. Thus, the candles at the top of this post.

The column this week is an interview with a Roman Catholic priest who has, for decades, maintained a discipline of writing letters to the Times editors. The newspaper has changed a lot during that time and, these days, its role providing the sacred texts of the Sexual Revolution (and other waves of cultural change) has evolved from its base in the editorial pages to the news pages, as well.

I rarely run my column here at GetReligion, but this one is directly linked to the subject of this podcast. So please read it all. Note, in particular, that this monsignor believes that many in the church fail to take the Times seriously enough -- failing to read its pages with respect, as well as with justified skepticism and then criticism. So here is the start of the column and a link to the whole thing:

Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton recognizes a source of doctrinal authority when he sees one -- which is why he pays such close attention to The New York Times.
The 83-year-old priest often feels the urge to respond to the Gray Lady and, rather than limiting himself to sermons from a pulpit, he keeps pounding out letters to the editor -- roughly 330 since his first on July 19, 1961.
"I am a citizen, I am a Christian, I am a Catholic and I am priest," said Hamilton, who is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst, N.Y. These letters are part of "defending the faith in our day and age. You have to keep saying that there is a profound moral and ethical angle to all of life and certainly to the stories and editorials printed in the Times."
While he frequently disagrees with the Times, the monsignor said it's crucial for the church to take journalism seriously. The bottom line: Hamilton believes more clergy should demonstrate their respect for journalists by reading their work carefully and then arguing with them -- on the record.
To which I say, "Amen." As of this week, I have been writing this syndicated "On Religion" column for 27 years and I have heard from many angry professionals on both sides of the tense wall between church and Fourth Estate. This was especially true when I taught in a seminary in Denver, before I began teaching journalism in Christian colleges. We urgently need dialogue.
Tragically, it appears these tensions are getting worse, creating a giant, two-sided blind spot inside the First Amendment.
Consider that recent Times column by Frank Bruni entitled, "Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana." He stressed that it's time for traditional faiths to change their doctrines and that they "must be made" to do so.
"Homosexuality and Christianity don't have to be in conflict in any church anywhere," argued Bruni. "That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred's pull as of tradition's sway. … But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It's a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since -- as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing."
For Hamilton, this demonstrates the "relativist" worldview he describes in his book, "Jousting With The New York Times 1961-2014: Worldviews in Radical Conflict." While the editors appear to believe that there is "good religion" as well as "bad religion," he said, the key is that they attack those who defend "absolute, transcendent" doctrines about moral issues.

Please read it all. And enjoy the podcast, too. Please note that our iTunes page has been updated and improved. Check it out, please!

IMAGE: I don't know precisely how many candles are in this picture, but it seemed like an appropriate image following Orthodox Holy Week.

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