New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever

You know what, your GetReligionistas did hear something about an interesting quote from New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet during yesterday's Fresh Air program on National Public Radio. We have also seen the blitz of Twitter reactions to his words.

It was something about elite journalists struggling to "get religion," right?

The headline for this interview was highly relevant, in light of the ongoing mainstream media meltdown in the wake of the White House win by Donald Trump. That would be: " 'New York Times' Executive Editor On The New Terrain Of Covering Trump." (That link includes the transcript and a link to the audio file.)

The interview includes all kinds of interesting material, including Baquet's take on the "fake news" phenomenon and life with a president-elect who is overly fond of Twitter. 

The Times editor also explains why he believes that it's a recent phenomenon for journalists to feel obligated to cover both sides of heated public debates, especially when journalists believe they already know the key facts. Thus, they should just print what they believe is true and that's that. Is Baquet advocating a return to the candid advocacy (often called the European Model of the Press) that dominated American journalism until late in the 19th Century?

But we are, of course, primarily interested in the quote that launched waves of emails and tweets in this direction. That would be the section in which Baquet addresses a particular news beat that has given his newspaper problems:

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.

You can see how some folks would think that we'd be interested in that. However, I think it's crucial to see the wider context of where that quote appeared in this interview.

Baquet and host Terry Gross are talking about Trump and his link to truly dangerous elements in American life, over on the fringes with racists and nationalists. That, for Baquet, links directly to anger in the American heartland and that links directly to, yes, religion. So let's back up and walk into the terrain that surrounds that "get religion" sound bite.

GROSS: So I want to quote something that The New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote on August 7.

That would be the controversial essay that ran under this headline: "Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism." Now back to Gross:

He wrote, (reading) if you're a working journalist and you believe that Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the U.S. nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him? Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook that American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half century. So he speaks for himself, he is a columnist...
BAQUET: Jim Rutenberg is one fine writer (laughter).
GROSS: Yeah, he speaks for himself and not for The Times.
BAQUET: Yeah.
GROSS: But as a working journalist, as the executive editor of The Times, are you wrestling with any of the questions that he's asking?
BAQUET: In a very, very different way. Here's how I choose to wrestle with these questions. There is no question that we have a truly unusual figure who's about to occupy the White House, who won the election, by the way. And he's bringing along with him other truly unusual figures.

The Times leader then explains that his newsroom will try to respond to this challenge with a "double down" strategy when it comes to investigative reporting and more "explainer" pieces in which the Gray Lady tells its readers (along with the editors and producers in many other news organizations) what is actually happening in American life. Thus, the Trump phenomenon is unusual, but it cannot be ignored.

That Baquet quote continues:

And I want to make sure we're set up to cover that. I want to make sure that we are much more creative about beats out in the country so that we understand that anger and disconnectedness that people feel. And I think I use religion as an example because I was raised Catholic in New Orleans. 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. And I think we can do much, much better. And I think there are things that we can be more creative about to understand the country.
That's how I look at it. I now have two big jobs. Big job one is to cover the most compelling and unusual president we have had in my lifetime. Big job two is to really understand and explain the forces in America that led to Americans wanting a change so much that they were willing to select such a different figure for the White House.

Now, here's what I think he is saying when I read that (and let me remind readers that I am a fervent #NeverTrump #NeverHillary voter): "Wow. This Trump thing really shocked us. People outside of the urban coasts must be really, really mad to make this kind of desperate, irrational choice in a presidential election. We need to understand why they are mad. Clearly, lots of these angry Americans are very religious. As a center of urbane, rational thought, our newsroom doesn't know what to handle that."

Now, for me, the next logical question would be to ask why these heartland folks voted the way they did.

It's crucial to know that the Trump vote -- if you read what voters said -- included lots of people who openly said that they didn't want to vote for Trump, but felt that they had no other choice. Lots of these people (in-depth exit polls will soon tell us more) linked their vote to cultural, moral and religious tends at the U.S. Supreme Court and in executive orders from the White House. In other words, they feared emerging cracks in the First Amendment and what they saw as threats to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

But that isn't where the interview goes, because the very next exchange is this:

GROSS: One of the language things that a lot of media organizations have been wrestling with is the expression the alt-right, which a lot of media organizations consider to be a rebranding of extremist white nationalist groups, of hate groups. So what has The New York Times' approach been to dealing with this?
BAQUET: What we did was we did a tremendous amount of reporting. And we came up with a definition, and I can't remember the exact definition...
GROSS: I think I have it here.
BAQUET: Great.
GROSS: A racist, far-right fringe movement that embraces an ideology of white nationalism and is anti-immigrant anti-Semitic and anti-feminist. And...
BAQUET: I think that captures it (laughter).

So -- statistically speaking -- the key groups within the American public that swung the election to Trump were part of the alt-right, meaning hate groups, white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, etc., etc.?

Now, as someone who opposed Trump from day one, I am well aware that some nasty people hailed him as their hero. There are stories there that MUST be covered.

But does that explain the whole election? Isn't there also a need for coverage of blue-collar Democrats in the Rust Belt who voted for Trump, along with lots of evangelicals, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, traditional Catholics and others who really wished they could have pulled a lever for some other pro-religious liberty candidate? Just asking.

At this point let me urge readers to listen to the whole interview. Just do it.

But at the same time, let me urge readers to grasp that Baquet's candid confession on NPR about the need for his journalists to "get religion" can be seen as part of a multi-decade debate in that newsroom about the lack of intellectual and cultural diversity at the Times.

 

Yes, I am talking -- once again -- about, among other things, the column by Times public editor Daniel Okrent that asked, "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?"

During a very different campaign, he noted:

I'll get to the politics-and-policy issues this fall ... but for now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

Later on, there is this: 

... 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.

During that same rough spell at the Times (see the book, "Hard News: Twenty-one Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media" by Seth Mnookin) the managers of the world's most powerful newsroom commissioned a self study that probed issues of ethics and bias.

This study was published with this title: "Preserving Our Readers' Trust." Here is a passage that I have quoted many times here at GetReligion:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

Once again let me ask: What's the solution?

The self-study committee stressed that the Times newsroom needs more intellectual and cultural diversity, if it wants to take seriously the lives of millions of Americans who live between New York and the West Coast. Discussions of religion and heartland culture keep popping up in this report.

Thus, a few paragraphs later, the committee stated:

Nothing we recommend should be seen as endorsing a retreat from tough-minded reporting of abuses of power by public or private institutions. In part because the Times's editorial page is clearly liberal, the news pages do need to make more effort not to seem monolithic. Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel that we are missing stories because our staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.

Now, that reads like it could have been written yesterday or within hours of the post-election emotional breakdown in major newsrooms. That sounds like a description of some of challenges that Baquet says his team must face -- right now.

But wait. It's simply inaccurate to say that the lives of the overwhelming majority of traditional religious believers in this country have anything to do with the alt-right or whatever label can be attached to the tiny percentage of fringe voters who are shouting, "Hail Trump!" 

Lots of people are worried about religious and cultural trends in this country. Is the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference part of the alt-right? Does that label fit many Latino Pentecostals? How about the Little Sisters of the Poor? How about the Mormons who, in the end, reluctantly voted for Trump? Did Trump find his modest, but surprisingly high, number of African-American voters in pews? How about pro-life Catholics in labor unions in the Rust Belt? 

Listen carefully to the whole interview.

Yes, it's good that the leader of the New York Times newsroom realizes that his team struggles to "get religion." But people at the great Gray Lady have known that they have a problem there for quite some time now. The question remains: Do they really want to address this problem in concrete ways that affect how they cover, not the alt-right, but the lives of millions and millions of ordinary religious believers in this country (including in New York City)?

FIRST IMAGE: "Trump meme" illustration with HateWatch feature at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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