This weekend's think piece is not about religion-news reporting, at least not directly.
Rather, this Vanity Fair piece -- "Maybe the Right-Wing Media Isn’t Crazy, After All" -- is about the degree to which the loaded-dice political coverage of this year's White House race has pushed our elite media in a dangerous direction, towards open advocacy coverage in favor of Democrats and against Citizen Donald Trump, the sort-of Republican candidate.
It's crucial to note that the author of this piece is one Ken Stern, the former CEO of National Public Radio. This is not your normal wingnut critic of media bias. The thesis: Many elite newsrooms in mainstream journalism have become almost as unhinged as the alternative press on the right, making the latter -- tragically -- a more viable alternative source of news for millions of heartland Americans.
If that sounds familiar, it should. This essentially the point of view voiced -- over and over -- in the past decade or so by readers' representatives at The New York Times. At some point, the leaders of great Gray Lady simply started preaching to their choir, on many key subjects, and wrote off their responsibility to do accurate, balanced, respectful coverage of news and trends in much of America.
Yes, say hello to former Times editor Bill Keller and the doctrines of what your GetReligionistas call "Kellerism." This is where we make contact with many crucial stories in mainstream religion news, especially those related to marriage and sexuality.
Before I offer a slice or two of the Vanity Fair piece, let's flash back to "Is The New York Times A Liberal Newspaper" essay in 2004, written by readers' representative Daniel Okrent. He is focusing on how issues of morality, culture and religion are at the heart of most complaints about bias at the Times.
If you're examining the paper's coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn't wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you're traveling in a strange and forbidding world.
Let me state, once again: You need to read it all, if you never have. Toward the end there are these famous words:
... It's one thing to make the paper's pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls (European papers, aligned with specific political parties, have been doing it for centuries), and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don't think it's intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn't have to be intentional.
With that in mind, let's now leap into the Vanity Fair piece, which takes this topic up another notch or two in terms of its very real threat to public discourse in American life and politics.
Oh, let me stress again that I remain #NeverHillary #NeverTrump. Just thought I'd toss that in there before some of you click "comment."
Virtually every day during the past year, I’ve digested a daily dose of Breitbart, the alt-right Web site that many journalists, including myself, have described as “Trump Pravda.” A typical day on Breitbart includes any number of articles extolling the rise of Donald Trump, including the massive size of his rallies and (on and off) his fast-rising poll numbers. There are also several pieces attacking the “mainstream media,” usually CNN, The New York Times or The Washington Post. Recently, there have been a slew of pieces from the Clinton WikiLeaks cache, which are part of a larger set of articles showcasing the couple’s venality, arrogance, and sexual peccadillos. The reporting, such as it is, is generally factually accurate, but mean-spirited and fantastically one-sided. If Breitbart were your primary news source, you would receive a view of the election that would be largely distorted and wholly unrecognizable to swaths of the American public.
And now for the twist, which keeps unfolding like a journalism nightmare:
When I checked the news the other day, it was more of the same. I counted some 20 articles about the presidential race, each espousing the unequivocal view that one candidate is collapsing due to moral failings, financial improprieties, and complete and utter lack of judgment and ethics. Notably, I was not reading Breitbart. Instead, I was reading The Washington Post, delivered to my doorstep, and the attacks were squarely waged not against the Clintons but rather against Trump.
In the Front Section, there was an incredible array of Trump-phobia, ranging from attacks on his business acuity to his ethics (“How Trump got a personal tax break by defaulting on loans”), to his personal knowledge (“Trump’s map of black America needs an update”), to stupid opinions about Trump (“Nadar predicts fastest impeachment in history for a President Trump”), to smart opinions about Trump (“A contemptible candidate—and the party to blame for it”).
If you think this is limited to the National News portion of the paper, you would be mistaken. The Metro section, which typically reports on the Washington, D.C. area, was headlined by a news article describing the dysfunction at the Trump campaign in Virginia and a column arguing that Trump watching should be rated R for children. The top article in the Style section sported a massive feature on the Trump meltdown, supplemented by a column attacking Steve Bannon, the C.E.O. of the Trump campaign and the former head honcho at Breitbart. The sports section featured a column attacking Trumpand defending, of all things, locker-room culture. Only the Health section lacked a Trump hook. (Trump, as you may recall, temporarily banned WaPo reporters from his campaign events.)
Rather remarkably, there was virtually no mention of Clinton or any other candidate running for president on this particular day. And so I repeated this little thought experiment again last week and the results were largely the same.
Yes, stresses Stern, Trump has demonstrated "xenophobic, racist, and sexually predatory behavior." #DUH
The question is this: To what degree is the unbalanced coverage in mainstream newsrooms creating the monster of the alt-right and it's mirror-image view of American life?
Yes, he stresses, something has changed:
... This election is different: for the first time in my memory, some of the major media organizations in this country have now abandoned all semblance of objectivity in furtherance of electing Hillary Clinton, or perhaps more accurately, in furtherance of the defeat of Donald Trump.
One more quote, before I urge you to Read It All:
Don’t mistake me for some traditionalist harrumphing that the media is not the way it used to be in the good old days. We had partisan media long before we had objective media. And Trump is an affront to American democracy and common decency, and if this is the price to pay for keeping him out of the White House, so be it. But there is most certainly a price to pay. The next time Fox News or Breitbart caterwaul about media bias, the claim will have substantially more bite to it.
You can hear the voice of a journalist in mourning, can't you?
I don't know, it kind of makes me feel like this:
Hold tight. Heavy weather ahead.