People keep asking me a predictable question: "Did you and the whole GetReligion team feel vindicated (or words to that effect) when New York Times editor Dean Baquet admitted (or "confessed," or words to that effect) that elite newsrooms, including his own, just "don't get religion"?
What do you think, Einstein?
Sure enough, this was the first question that Crossroads host Todd Wilken asked this week when we were on the air, recording the basics for the podcast. Click right here to tune that in.
For those of you who have been on another cyber-planet, or missed my earlier post on this topic ("New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever"), here is the most quoted piece of Baquet's interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air program, during a discussion of the alt-right and Donald Trump:
I think that the New York-based and Washington-based too probably, media powerhouses don't quite get religion. We have a fabulous religion writer, but she's all alone. We don't get religion. We don't get the role of religion in people's lives.
My reaction? Of course I thought this was nice, in a laugh to keep from crying kind of way. I mean, your GetReligionistas have published about 10 million words over the past 12-plus years making that argument. Sure, it's nice to hear the Times editor say those words.
But what about it? That was Wilken's next question: If I could say three things to Baquet about the implications of that statement, what would they be?
You'll have to listen to the podcast to hear the answer. So there.
But as a hint, check out this short Aleteia.org commentary about the Baquet statement -- "Dog bites man: New York Times editor admits ‘We don’t get religion’ " -- written by Deacon Greg "Headlines and Homilies" Kandra.
When reading this, it helps to know that (a) Kandra is a permanent Catholic deacon at the huge Our Lady Queen of Martyrs parish in New York City, as well as (b) a former CBS News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. Here is part of what the deacon had to say:
When I was in journalism school almost 40 years ago, we were required to take basic courses in things like history, economics and political science, to have a grounding in some of the subjects we might conceivably have to cover out in the real world. To that list, I’d add today world religions. Faith and belief are fueling so much of what is happening in the news today. And too many journalists Just Don’t Get It.
It isn’t that reporters don’t believe or practice religion -- many of the people I worked with at CBS News were practicing Christians and Jews, with a significant number of the staffers Catholic -- but their understanding of religion is generally not terribly deep. And they too often don’t know enough about any religion other than their own -- and don’t have the time or inclination to want to learn more. (Even those who might know a thing or two about their own faith -- I’m looking at you, Catholics -- really don’t know what they don’t know.)
I would agree with that. The newsrooms I worked with, as a rule, included quite a few Catholics and liberal, oldline Protestants who went to church once or twice a year.
One year at Christmas, one of my newsroom's most outspoken liberals asked me -- as the religion-beat specialist, you know -- for my opinion of the city's most beautiful Midnight Mass. I suggested the city's largest Episcopal church, which had a famous choir and chamber orchestra. This editor said: "No. I'm Catholic. I need to go to one that counts."
But Kandra is right that some kind of J-school or Religion 101 continuing-education effort would probably help. However, I am convinced that there is no way around the fact that newsroom managers (a) need to seek out and hire one or two skilled, proven religion-beat specialists and (b) admit that they need more intellectual and cultural diversity in their newsrooms (as stated by that classic 2005 New York Times self study).
The stakes are high, on this topic. Check out what National Review writer David French (one of the best #NeverTrump voices on Twitter) had to say in an essay -- "Why is so much media coverage of religion so dumb?" -- written after the Baquet interview:
Baquet is right. If you don’t “get” religion, you can’t understand our country or the world. And yet, reporters and pundits too often cover religion badly, if at all.
The original sin of religion reporting is the failure to believe what religious people say. There’s always an “other” reason for their actions.
In much coverage of American Christianity, this mindset is obvious: You believe that God ordained marriage as the union of a man and a woman? Well, that’s just bigotry in search of a belief system, religion wielded as a club against the marginalized.
Our nation has consistently misunderstood the challenge posed by jihadist terror, too, in part because our secular leaders and reporters often don’t believe jihadists mean what they say.
Another French observation is directly related to the contents of this week's Crossroads podcast.
Let us attend. A crucial newsroom sin is:
... the belief that a good Google search or a quick Wikipedia read transforms a reporter into a theologian. Few things are more irritating than the argument that, “If you really believed the Bible then you’d ...” followed by a theological interpretation of such profound stupidity that you’d be embarrassed for the reporter if he or she had an ounce of shame.
So is there reason to hope that strategic newsroom managers will learn something from all of this?
I have my doubts, for someone who has been dying on this beach for 35 years or so (click here for my 1982 Quill cover story, "The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets"). I fear that lots of publishers and editors are going to talk a bit of talk, but not walk the walk, when it comes to learning painful editorial lessons from 2016.
I'm not alone. Check out this brutal litany from University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite, writing at the NiemanLab website (h/t to M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway). The double-decker headline proclaims:
“It’s the safest prediction I could make beyond the sun coming up in the morning: You won’t fix this.”
Oh my. Here is the body of the article, which is hard to trim:
You won’t fix trust in news because…
You won’t fix how news gets made because…
You won’t fix how you hire senior leadership to diversify your thinking because…
You won’t fix what stories are selected because…
You won’t change who you hire to do the stories because…
You won’t fix the ways that stories are written to be more transparent and more directly sourced to give people a reason to trust you because…
You won’t fix the lack of training in newsrooms that could retrain reporters to source stories more explicitly because…
You won’t fix the content management systems to require sourcing on stories to be transparent and structured and visible because...
You won’t fix the technology leadership in the company because…
You won’t fix the thinking that makes you believe you’re not a technology company because…
You won’t fix the belief that trust and fake news is Google and Facebook’s problems and not yours because…
You still don’t believe you’re the problem.
Wake me when you do.
Or as I used to hear reporters say, in one of the newsrooms I worked in: Being an editor means never having to say that you're sorry.