When will they learn? Media cluelessness about red-state life happened in 2004 and in ...

I well remember the evening in 2005 when Pope Benedict XVI was elected. The news was announced at dusk in a rainy St. Peter’s Square. I was there and I well remember how so many of the Europeans –- particularly the French –- standing close by were swearing a blue streak when the new pope was proclaimed. Many newspapers talked about a climate of fear descending as the world awaited a reign of terror from the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened and Benedict, it turned out, became the first pope in hundreds of years to resign. He willingly give up power. He never did turn out to be the evil genius they accused him of being. And so, when I read all the doom about the coming President Donald Trump, I wonder if the same sort of dire predictions will prove false. (Of course, Cardinal Ratzinger already had tons of Vatican administrative experience.)

I’m also seeing the same wailing and gnashing of teeth that happened in November 2004 when George W. Bush beat John Kerry. The media elites were realizing there was a lot of red-state America out there that they weren’t getting.

Roy Peter Clark’s famous Nov. 4, 2004, “Confessions of an alienated journalist” essay in Poynter.org said it all:

It seems that the Democrats are insensitive to "moral values." This puzzles me because I think that opposing a war, or working for economic justice, or making health care more available in America all derive from a moral vision. Apparently, it is not the moral vision -- the set of faith and family values -- that helped re-elect George W. Bush.
I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America. "Different" is too pale a word. We are alienated. We may live in the same country, but we treat each other like aliens. Maybe it's worse than that because we usually see and suspect the alien in our midst. The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible.

I pitched a piece to Poynter that ran the following month that explained the media’s cluelessness about the other –- and mainly religious -- half of America. I wrote that many outlets didn’t have knowledgeable religion beat specialists or if they decided to create a faith beat, they tended to grab members of their staff who were unqualified.

I said in part:

Those of us who've been on the religion beat for a while know there's fear and loathing of religion among many gatekeepers who call the shots on newsroom staffing. Partly because they attach insufficient importance to the subject, they often fail to hire the best person for the religion beat. And partly as a result of that, much of the media missed the biggest story of the election. 

Our own tmatt, in his syndicated column, went to bat on this subject -- cultural and intellectual diversity in newsrooms -- at the same time. See this: "Red, blue and green (tea)."

Well, well, well. Twelve years later, has anything changed?

This Los Angeles Times story at least mentioned religion a few times as a factor in the great cultural divide. But as we've mentioned in recent days, it's still foreign territory.

This Washington Post story on the two Americas theme also tried to integrate faith partly because, I suspect, one of the writers used to cover religion for the paper. And this pre-election Politico piece about evangelical Christian women turning against Trump did accurately portray that abortion is still the issue for many people on which a candidate rises or falls.

But this Marie Claire piece about evangelical women secretly gunning for Hillary fell quite short of the mark. It read like a Hillary booster piece.

Then there was this Buzzfeed article, also about evangelical women, that left me grasping for words.

So, the typical evangelical woman is married, apparently doesn’t work full-time and wears a flowy tunic with leggings? (Why is it that every piece about women has to mention their clothes?? Sigh.) The writer went to one conference in Charlotte, N.C., for evangelical women and produced a long piece based on the handful of people she interviewed there.

I thought the article might contain useful insights about evangelicals, but when the author spent a chunk of it mourning some of the slams that speaker Jen Hatmaker has gotten on her pro-gay-marriage stance, I mentally clicked off. Using the term “marriage equality” is such a red flag. If you’re going to report on a group that doesn’t buy the world view behind that term, find another way to express it. At the very least, show that these kinds of issues exist by listening to both sides and quoting them accurately and with respect.

The writer did have some good insights. I agreed with her findings that evangelicals were looking at independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin as a way they could cast a vote without feeling they’d sinned. But I have a problem when a reporter attends one event and uses it as a grid to define an entire national and even global group. It is easy to do and saves time, but it was very limited.

All this is to say there’s been efforts, some successful and others not so much, to infiltrate the world of faith since 2004 to see how it might affect the election.

What’s remarkable is that most of them missed the mark. More than 80 percent of evangelicals went for Trump and not for Hillary. Was it all about abortion?  Forty-three years after it’s been legalized, it’s still the issue for many people. I know a lot of media don’t want to hear that, but if they’d open their ears, they might get a clue as to why they missed the boat this time around.

Please respect our Commenting Policy