It happens. Every now and then, during my daily tsunami of reading mainstream news reports about religion, I look right at something and fail to see it.
Consider, for example, that rather important religion-news ghost in that New York Times story the other day about a certain non-decision decision by the U.S. Supreme Court about the Health and Human Services mandates linked to the Affordable Care Act. The headline on the story was this rather ho-hum statement: "Justices, Seeking Compromise, Return Contraception Case to Lower Courts."
Now, the Supreme Court is in Washington, so I focused most of my post on the Washington Post coverage of this religious-liberty case, which involves quite a few Christian ministries and schools (see this Bobby Ross, Jr., post for more). However, for a variety of reasons, public discussions of the case have boiled down to the Barack Obama administration vs. the Little Sisters of the Poor. In part, as illustrated in the photo at the top of the post, we can thank Pope Francis for that.
My post the other day focused on the fact that many journalists -- headline writers in particular -- seemed frustrated that this case keeps going on and on and on, with one complicated and nuanced development after another. As I put it, the desire of many editors is clear:
The goal is to write that final headline that Will. Make. This. Stuff. Go. Away.
Toward the end of the piece I turned, briefly, to the coverage in The New York Times. To make a long story short, I saw a few interesting details and missed The Big Idea in that report. You see, the college of journalism cardinals at the Times, and in some other newsrooms, found a way to write about this case without mentioning some rather important words, as in, "Little Sisters of the Poor."
Luckily for me, there are now -- more than 12 years into the life of this blog -- lots of people who know how to spot a GetReligion angle in the news. That includes, of course, one M.Z. "GetReligion emerita" Hemingway of The Federalist.
Well, she clobbered this one, in a piece that ran with this headline: "Media Want To Make Sure You Never Hear About ‘The Little Sisters Of The Poor’." You need to read the whole thing, but this is where she kicks into high gear:
A case of “Little Sisters of the Poor” vs. “Powerful Men in Government” is a gift from the editorial gods. But our media are too busy scare-quoting “religious liberty” and pushing an authoritarian agenda. Actually identifying the Little Sisters, much less neutrally profiling them, much less giving their story the weight it deserves, that just won’t do. We have stories to cover poorly and narrative agendas to push.
It’s not just the Washington Post that is hiding the name and story of the Little Sisters of the Poor. A reader noticed that David G. Savage of the Tribune News Service also hid their name. His piece, very sympathetic to the bureaucracy that seeks to limit religious freedom, waited until deep in the story to even mention the Little Sisters. Seriously, the piece reads like a press release from HHS if HHS had its press releases written by the savvy public relations teams funded by Planned Parenthood. He finally mentions the sisters in the 13th paragraph because he’s forced to put in a quote from their attorney and their attorney had the decency to name them.
And what happened in the hallowed pages of the great Gray Lady?
But a very special prize goes out to Adam Liptak of the New York Times. We can call it the Linda Greenhouse Award for Supreme Court Advocacy Presented As Reporting.
Liptak’s 22-paragraph, 1283-word story manages to mention the Little Sisters of the Poor not once. Not in the headline. Not in the lede. Not in any paragraph or sentence. Not in the captions, even though the captions had to work really hard to avoid mentioning them.
If any Republican president went to war against a group called Little Sisters of the Poor, that editorial gift would be unwrapped on every front page of every newspaper in the land. It would lead the nightly broadcast of every television news show. It would be joked about on Saturday Night Live. Comedians and virtue signalers across the land would “destroy” that Republican president every chance they got.
So what is going on in this case, journalistically speaking?
Earlier in her post, M.Z. quoted commentator Mona Charen's National Review take on this issue, which centers on the fact that it is simply hard to win a public-relations war with a group of nuns who have dedicated their lives to helping the least of these. And couldn't they have chosen some other name, one that shows they are actually dangerous religious radicals who threaten the public life and order of these evolving United States? Charon noted:
What’s in a name? ... We shouldn’t fetishize language, but the name of this order of nuns (however it was arrived at -- I have no idea how long it has been around or how it chose its name) is perfectly pitched to make liberals/progressives squirm. Just as the Left used every possible locution to avoid using the term “partial-birth abortion” -- the editors of the Post and others go to some considerable trouble to bury the name “Little Sisters of the Poor.”
Isn’t that interesting? That our media that seek out and histrionically elevate every sympathetic plaintiff when it comes to cases advancing sexualityism suddenly have trouble even naming the Little Sisters of the Poor?
Meanwhile, there is a kind of newsy postscript to this affair.
The other day, M.Z. had a rather interesting dialogue with a major reporter on a topic related to this -- as in the trend in many elite newsrooms towards wrapping "scare quotes" around the term religious liberty (an issue covered many times by our own Bobby Ross, Jr.).
Follow this one all the way to the end:
Stay tuned. This story isn't going away -- not yet.
MAIN IMAGE: From photos distributed by the Little Sisters of the Poor.