This was the rare week that my column for the Universal Syndicate grew directly out of what was happening online here at GetReligion. It doesn't take a doctorate in journalism history to figure out the topic for all of the chatter. Correct?
That discussion led to this week's "Crossroads" podcast with the team at Issues, etc. Click here to tune that in.
The whole thing felt kind of hall-of-mirrors meta, with host Todd Wilken and I discussing figures in the mainstream media discussing whether many mainstream journalists had proven their critics right by waving all of those cyber rainbow flags in the heady hours after the 5-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision.
That decision, no surprise, led to a blitz of posts and debates all over cyberspace, including here, here, here, here, here and, especially, here at GetReligion. But the key to the podcast was this post -- "From old Kellerism to new BuzzFeed: The accuracy and fairness debate rolls on" -- in which I noted that this new debate about the new news was actual linked to old debates that have been going on for some time.
So have we seen a historic change in American journalism? I still need some help from GetReligion readers trying to parse the following quote from BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, as he defended (click here for transcript) his news site's open celebration of the U.S. Supreme Court decision during a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt:
BS: I don’t really think there, I mean, I guess I don’t really think there was much of a controversy, or at least I didn’t see. There were like, I’ve been tweeting with three people today -- Tim Carney and a guy named, just, I mean, but I’m not sure like three or four people make a controversy. But I think we have, we drafted and published a Standards Guide and an Ethics Guide several months ago, and I think we’ve been wrestling with something I’m sure you think about a lot, which is, although I think I probably come down somewhere a bit differently from you, which is you know, is it possible to, look, what is the tradition that used to be called kind of objective journalism, mainstream media journalism, the tradition the New York Times and the Washington Post come out of, which is the tradition I come out of? You know, how do you do that in a way that, you know, that’s honest with your readers? And I think you know, there’s always been, for a long time, been this debate both on the right and on the left saying come on, you guys, stop lying, don’t conceal your opinions. We know you have real opinions. And at the same time, of course, everyone has a set of implicit opinions about, you know, you don’t have to say, Hugh, that like you oppose racism and that you favor free speech. Those are obviously baked into your coverage, just as much as they’re baked into the New York Times’ coverage.
OK, please click comment and tell me what's going on there. Please. Help.
I don't do this often, but I think podcast listeners will want to see several quotes from my "On Religion" column that come up in the discussion. So here is a link to that, and a strategic chunk of the text:
CNN raised the following question: "Did news outlets abandon their usual objectivity on this equal rights issue and, if so, is that defendable?" Narrator Brian Stelter worried aloud that his question might itself be offensive.
"If anything, the fact that I am gay has made me more critical of covering this story, because I am interested in knowing what the motivations are of people on every side," responded Chris Geidner, legal-affairs reporter for BuzzFeed. After studying the front-page coverage by elite newsrooms, he concluded that, "our editorial position in support of marriage equality and in support of LGBT rights is not much different from The New York Times and The Washington Post."
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith was more blunt, telling The Politico: "We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides."
Smith's candor echoed that of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who in 2011 stressed that his newsroom was shaped by an "urban" and "socially liberal" mindset that affected coverage of marriage and other religious issues. Asked if America's most influential newspaper slanted its coverage to the left, he said: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."
Again, this is not a new issue. However, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute -- an influential journalism think tank -- stressed that journalists today must be especially careful in online forums, while avoiding public celebrations.
"When journalists use trending hashtags that carry an editorial message, it may undercut their intentions to appear to be fair, accurate and open to many sides of the story," he argued, in a Poynter.org essay. "A good measure for how to handle this would be whether you would use a hashtag or change your logo if the Court had decided differently. Would you use #HateWins or #LoveLoses? Would you have used the rainbow flag colors no matter what the decision?"
Caution is especially important when dealing with the "deeply held religious beliefs" of many readers, he added. "Whether you believe those beliefs are outdated or nonsensical should not shape your reporting when it comes to covering matters of faith. It is different than covering the political and social issues around same-sex marriage."
To say the least.